Cecil: Part 1: Let’s talk about what we’re talking about

One of my hesitations with social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, even blogging) is the inherent difficulty in using these tools to discuss issues that are located in a large and complex grey area of social opinion and politics. However, increasingly, news websites seem to be showing Twitter responses as part of their coverage, so there’s no denying that these are important platforms for engaging with current issues. This does not mean that we need to simplify our discussions to a watered down understanding of an issue to make it more readable. Given that, my approach to this topic takes place in a number of parts, each focusing on a different facet of the story.

By now, most people have probably heard about the hunter who killed a lion in Zimbabwe named Cecil, resulting in extensive news coverage and an outpouring of social media attention. One of the problems I see happening with this story is that many people are approaching it from different angles and experiences, but they’re all trying to have the same conversation. This is very difficult to do, because when we think we’re talking about the same thing, but aren’t, or are talking about the same thing, but don’t think we are, it leads to misunderstanding and conflict.

We need to know what we’re talking about.

I want to be upfront about how my personal baggage informs my mental organization of this issue. To do this, I’ll outline the range of more nuanced issues that I think are at play here so that I can discuss them individually and with specificity. For me, here are the things I’m thinking about in relation to this story:

  1. The effect of media representation and language on public perceptions;
  2. The decision about whether, as hunters, to defend or ostracize;
  3. The concern among hunters that stories like this puts all hunters in the same category;
  4. The importance of knowing the scientific facts about the animal and its ecology;
  5. The need to understand the politics and economics of conservation.

So these five sub-topics are really the ones that are the most important for me in this issue, and indeed in many other stories in the media involving hunting. I think it’s hard for me to talk about this without partially compartmentalizing each of these considerations and focusing on them somewhat individually. This is not to say that there aren’t other important issues, or even that these points are arranged in a hierarchy of importance. My opinion on this story is also informed by a combination of each of these more specific issues; this is just how I organize my thoughts.

One of the most important things for me in discussing an issue like this one is having the willingness and ability to embrace what people might perceive as paradox: to be able to say that I think what Walter Palmer and his hunting guides did was wrong, but that I still defend hunting; that I really have no personal interest in hunting a lion, but that I do not disagree with lion hunting; that killing this individual lion might have been wrong for sociocultural reasons, but that I understand the ecology of the species enough to know that it wasn’t necessarily wrong on a biological level; and that even if I disagree with the way certain people hunts, I am ok with it as long as it is legal. In other words, it’s possible to have multiple opinions about different aspects of an issue.

I’ll discuss this issue in three parts: Part 1 will focus on the first point; Part 2 will address points 2 & 3; and Part 3 will address points 4 & 5.

Part 1:
The way media and language frame this issue has a profound effect on how people perceive and talk about it.

Subconscious perceptions informed by value-laden language ultimately have tremendous consequences for how meaningfully I can have discussions with people about my other four points.

I’ll say that so far, I have mixed feelings about the way media has covered the story. I’m not a media analyst; I have no professional training in this, only my own perceptions and reactions to the language used in the media. This is also not a systematic selection of media, just a couple examples to illustrate my point.

The first coverage I saw about this was a CBC article that covered Jimmy Kimmel’s reaction to the killing of ‘Cecil the lion’. Now,  right up front, we need to recognize that the very fact that this lion had a name imbues the whole story with a sociocultural importance that would likely not be present if the lion were presented as a nameless, wild, apex predator, living in a wild habitat, doing wild things. A discussion of the effects of anthropomorphizing animals is out of my scope here, but these analyses exist, and suffice to say that giving the lion a name changes its significance for the general public. I’m not commenting on whether this is right or wrong; I’m only recognizing that it changes the nature of the issue. Would we still care about lions as a species? Yes. Would we feel the same personal attachment to the individual lion? Probably not.

Framing of Hunters as People:
Right from the outset, CBC describes the hunter as someone “who hunts big game for sport”. This is a loaded statement. I hunt big game, and consider myself engaged in athletic endeavours when doing so. The use of the term “trophy hunter” has also been prevalent. Describing any hunter in this way leaves out a whole range of important points about, for example, what the person does with the meat, their financial contribution and dedication to conservation (granted, we know what Palmer did with the meat, but I’m speaking generally about the use of this language), and the ecological effects of removing certain individuals from wildlife populations. Both Jimmy Kimmel and Johnny Rodrigues, chairmen of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, make comments about hunters being sexually inadequate or simply as people “who’ve got an ego. They’re bored with their lives“. I can tell you, with complete certainty, that neither of these two things are issues for me. In any case, this kind of language presents such a strong value judgment on the motivations of hunters as a whole, not only Walter Palmer, that is simply not true or encompassing of the activity.

Perceptions of Hunting Ethics:
There also seems to be a large focus on the fact that Palmer used a crossbow to shoot the lion, as if that somehow makes it inherently unethical. Let’s remember that bows are capable of delivery tremendous amounts of energy to kill animals by hemorrhaging. This does not make them less effective than guns. Perhaps the particular shot that Palmer took was unsafe, unethical, and ineffective, but the language focusing on the fact that he used a crossbow is dangerous and misrepresentative of the effectiveness of bowhunting.

Simplifications of the Conservation Issue:
Multiple articles also highlight the fact that Palmer paid around $54 000 to kill the lion. This particular issue is more related to my fifth point above about the politics of conservation, and I’ll address this more comprehensively in another post; however, noting only the amount of money Palmer paid does not appropriately represent the full issue of paying large amounts of money for hunting opportunities. It’s an important point and has much more relevance than simply showing that he is an arrogant rich man, but this kind of language evokes emotional responses from people that are inevitably antagonistic to the idea of paying for killing, rather than the actual long-term effects of this system.

The Use of Euphemisms:
On the other side of the discussion, Kimmel tells Palmer to “Stop saying you took the Lion. You take Aspirin. You killed the lion”. I agree. He killed the lion. I always use the word kill, because I think we need to give things a name, not a euphemism. I also don’t think that what we do when we kill an animal is wrong, so I don’t mind using the word kill. I would rather honestly embrace the emotional response from the reality of what we do than try to shield others from it. I tend to agree with Kimmel here that if Palmer is attempting to soften the language he is using, it isn’t working. However, I would also caution against the association of killing with wrong that can sometimes be implied with statements like this.

Now, I’m not disputing the facts presented by these articles, and this particular post is not about my personal opinion on the story (I’ll get to that in the other posts about this). I only want to draw attention to the point that our choice of language has dramatic implications for how people react to and think about issues. When we discuss issues as controversial and far-reaching as this, and share strong opinions about them, we need to remember what we’re talking about and choose our words carefully. I think we need to be careful to speak only about the particular case we want to be talking about, and not imply truths about the broader issues involved.  If we’re not talking about hunters or hunting or lion conservation in general, then let’s not use language that conveys value judgments about those topics. Let’s present facts unencumbered by personal feelings about them and at the same time be aware of how our feelings and perceptions are informed by the language used to discuss an issue.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words; sometimes that isn’t enough.

One of the things I frequently discuss with other hunters is the importance of public perceptions of hunting. I would imagine that most non-hunters never personally witness or participate in a hunt, meaning that their perception of hunting is developed through their perception of hunters. This means that the way we portray ourselves and represent hunting has impacts on the future of the activity (since hunting is affected by laws that are determined by a largely non-hunting voting public). As hunters, what do we do when one of our primary ways of representing hunting contributes to the very misunderstandings about the intentions and character of hunters that we work so hard to change?

I’ve seen many heated debates and angry comments on social media sites begin around a picture of a hunter and an animal he/she has killed (take a look at any of Cameron Hanes’s pictures for examples). This is one of the most common ways that hunters represent the story of the hunt. I think the use of photos from a hunt can be a great opportunity to engage with non-hunters and express ourselves, but perhaps an opportunity that is sometimes difficult to capture, especially when taking place in the impersonal space of social media.

I have been reluctant to post pictures of myself with animals I’ve killed. I’ve often felt like it’s just a ticking time bomb for misperception. I can even understand the issue that non-hunters (i.e. those who do not hunt and don’t necessarily understand the experiences and emotions involved in hunting, but not necessarily anti-hunters) have with pictures of smiling hunters holding a dead animal. Put yourself in their heads for a moment: the knee-jerk reaction is to see an expression of a bragging right over killing an animal. It’s difficult to convey the preparation, training, practice, time, effort, and emotions spent leading up to that moment. It’s perhaps easy to confuse elated pride with arrogance.

One of the things I’d like to do here is try to offer any non-hunting readers a glimpse into the mindset and intention of hunters when we post these sorts of pictures. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and like any group of people, we’re not all the same. But I can at least speak to my experience of the people I hunt with and most hunters I know. For hunters, I think there are some things we can do to better represent ourselves through these pictures. Most people probably already do these things, but in the interest of a well-rounded discussion, I’ll speak to hunters, too.

First, let’s try to diffuse some preconceptions for non-hunters reading this, which I hope there are (you’ll have to honestly be open to reconsidering some ideas). Here’s how I assume it looks to you: hunting pictures are probably reminiscent of colonizers standing over a conquered land, or images of a defeated army, or iconic representations of a hero having triumphed over a weaker foe. In other words, it probably evokes associations of blood thirst, anger, and superiority. Perhaps something similar to this?

Christopher Columbus, painting by John Vanderlyn

Christopher Columbus, painting by John Vanderlyn.

My experience is that when someone takes a photo with an animal he/she has killed, it is never done with a sense of the triumph of the powerful over the inferior; there’s no celebration of anything conquered. Rather, it’s the expression of a relationship developed through intense preparation and commitment. Here’s how things look for a hunter in the year(s) leading up to a hunt: there is research into the ecology of the animal to learn its patterns and how it changes throughout its life; there is some kind of training, usually a combination of physical preparation and practice with whatever tool is going to be used (gun or bow); there is fairly substantial financial investment into the hunt, which benefits the entire economy and especially the research and habitat management for a range of wildlife species (for example, a typical deer hunting season will cost me $50 for the individual hunting tag, probably about $200 throughout the year in fees to practice with my bow or ammunition costs, at least $75 in memberships to hunting insurance/conservation organizations, incidental costs throughout the season related to general supplies, and then there might be benefits to the tourism industry with costs for food and accommodations); and then hours spent in the actual hunt, probably at least some of this time in physically demanding and uncomfortable situations.

In summary, the moment when the animal walks out and an arrow or bullet is released is only one step in the process. It’s the culmination of immeasurable effort and commitment (and other than my attempt in the previous paragraph, we don’t really try to measure it, because it’s the process that’s important, and the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts). By this time, every hunter I know will have developed a deep affection and fascination with the species, and maybe even individual animal, being hunted.

When a hunter takes a photo with the animal, there’s no feeling of callous detachment from the life of that animal; there’s only admiration for the wildlife, and excitement over the nutritious food that the animal will provide. I can assure you that any photo I’ve taken with any animal I’ve killed has not done justice to the emotions I’m feeling in the moment. I would encourage non-hunters to remember that when you see one of these photos and feel a strong emotional response, know that we do too, whenever we look back on them. Although it can look like arrogance, it’s not. What you’re seeing is probably best summarized by gratitude, humility, and happiness.

It might be better represented by this photo.

Donnie Vincent with caribou

Christopher Columbus, painting by John Vanderlyn.

For other great examples, check out Remi Warren or Donnie Vincent.

Now, to hunters reading this, I offer some ideas for how we can try to address this conundrum. In every hunt, there is a story. Like all good stories, these usually involve struggle, some success, laughs, disappointment, excitement, and a host of minute experiences that you really “had to be there” to understand. Tell of these moments with the pictures. In the captions to the photos, tell the story articulately, sensitively, and in a way that truly represents how you think about the hunt. Be honest about the emotions, even when those are ones of wild happiness. We shouldn’t be afraid to take pride in an accomplishment, but we can do so with modesty. I encourage other hunters not to think of this as pandering to anti-hunters; think of it as an opportunity to be an ambassador of our lifestyle; take pride in the opportunity to show how positive hunting is in your life and for the ecology and conservation of wildlife. As always, show the animal respectfully and think about how you can represent your relationship with that individual animal through the photograph. These pictures can give others the chance to reflect on their own emotional responses to hunting and explore a different form of wildlife photography, and we really want them to come out the other side with a more positive outlook than when they started.

We rarely have the time necessary for long conversations in which we can fully express our opinions and feelings about these topics. Often, it’s the photographs of our hunts that friends and family see and that make their way around social media sites. We might only have that 1 minute someone spends looking at our picture to tell the story and represent the complex relationship hunters have with wildlife and the natural world. We need to use each of these minutes.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Sometimes, even a thousand is not enough; but we can at least start with those thousand words and use them to their fullest potential.