The internet is buzzing to the hashtag #CeciltheLion, so the topic barely needs an introduction. Butchered by American dentist Walter Palmer, a father of two from Minnesota. the story is abhorrent and distressing, but also profoundly informative on our views on humanity and man's place within the animal kingdom.
The world wide web has galvanised itself as judge and jury and I suspect despite his apology Walter Palmer's days as a dentist are over. According to The Mail he has lied about the location of a bear he hunted and killed in the past, and further allegations continue to surface. He has apologised - but his apology further highlights the bizarre way we categorise animals in our attempt to understand our place in the world. Palmer said he didn't realise that the lion had a name or that he was breaking the law by killing an animal that had been coaxed away from the game reserve it lived on.
It's this response that has had such a profound impact on me.
What is it about a wild animal with a name?
Does naming a wild animal somehow grant it "pet" status, or assumed human control? Certainly naming suggests identification, some connection being made between man and beast. We name our pets carefully, and enjoy reading stories about wild animals we've named, in some way imposing characteristics and personality upon them with that name. Tarka the Otter, Fantastic Mr Fox, Shamu the Killer Whale - better known as Free Willy in the film - what they all have in common is their fundamental predator status, but once named and seemingly domesticated (in the case of Mr Fox in the fictional guise of a country gentleman) they are not only acceptable, not even just likeable but loveable.
This unsettles me. Can we only respect wild animals if we can relate to them? Do we need to like them and understand them to consider their right to life? Human personification is insulting in the extreme to a majestic animal like Cecil, our niche in earth's ecosytem is fragile at best, arrogant and destructive at worst and the barbaric, deliberate, unprovoked murder of another species member for an adrenalin surge is despicable.
What also saddens me is the hypocrisy surrounding the killing of a named animal. Every day we as a species face choices that impact on our planet and the myriad of creatures who share it with us. Just last week I discussed the problem of aggressive seagulls with a friend- who rightly pointed out it is human action that precipitated the surge in the herring gull population. We now face tough decisions over possible culling, in an attempt to reverse this unpleasant trend. But what if someone writes a story on "Sammy the Seagull"? Would that make a cull less desirable? Why should it have an impact whatsoever?
Yet it most certainly would.
Should we name the Polar Bears, the Orang-utans, the Rhinos? Certainly it's a policy that has worked well in the conservation world, and who can blame them for capitalising on our innate need to connect when the animals themselves stand to benefit? Our local Zoo names all its animals, this is far more than an identification and logging process. But whilst all creatures exhibit unique personalities we should take care to avoid the anonymity trap - where a truly wild animal - one with no name - is somehow less worthwhile, less worthy of life than another.
The discussion at Westminster on revoking the hunting ban exposed my own hypocrisy. I do believe there are times when careful culling benefits animal populations, not only the human one. And I don't have a problem with pest control by farmers trying to protect their livestock. But fox hunting IS barbaric, and has little to do with farming, culling or animal husbandry, I would vote against any lifting of the ban. A fox shouldn't need to be called "Fantastic" to earn his right to live as nature intended - and it shouldn't have taken a lion named Cecil to point this out to me.
It is actually bizarrely ironic that a lion named for a racist, imperialist white man should now personify the argument of tolerance and freedom. I've only found one article on the web that picked up on this irony. It just goes to show that there is less in a name than we think, and those receiving it - be they human or animal - are beyond our easy classification.
How we treat other animals defines our humanity. Blessed with great intelligence as a species it would reflect better on us if we chose to use it occasionally. Animals - and people- don't need names to elicit respect. They don't earn their right to exist based on our patronising interest, their "value" is not dependent on the number of "Likes" they gain or hashtag shares they generate. I don't care what the lion was called or where he came from. He was brutally murdered for a human being's pleasure.
A name is a human invention superimposed on an animal we try to identify with, not their passport to freedom. Walter Palmer shouldn't apologise for killing Cecil - he should apologise for assuming his intellectual superiority, wealth and status granted him power to decide whether another animal lived or died, and for thinking a name made a difference.