In a way the ongoing reaction to the murder of Cecil is a real life representative example of humans’ need for an identifiable subject to emotionally relate to, discussed in our former post regarding Peter Singer’s latest book.
Singer cites several social psychology studies exposing humans’ cognitive ability to relate to one identifiable victim but much less so to many, even if many is just a few more individuals. One example of these studies is: “people were shown a photo of a child and told her name and age. They were then informed that to save her life, she needed a new, expensive drug that would cost about $300,000 to produce, and a fund was being established in an attempt to raise this sum. They were asked to donate to the fund. Another group was shown photos of eight children, given their names and ages, and told that the same sum, $300,000, was needed to produce a drug that would save all of their lives. They too were asked to donate. Those shown the single child gave more than those shown the eight children, presumably because they empathized with the individual child but were unable to empathize with the larger number of children.“
If eight children that are identifiable are too many, then what are the odds of the tens of thousands of the world lion population, or of the hundreds of billions of the industrially exploited animals?
Many activists are fighting for decades against both illegal and legal hunting, and animal extinction. They display harsh statistics over and over for years now. But none of their efforts have produced as much media attention and public outrage as the murder of one identifiable lion.
Cecil had a name and age and he was recognized and loved by many. That’s one of the reasons why his death got perhaps more global attention than any other animal ever in history, to the frustration of many animal rights activists who fight for trillions of animals whose lives are much worse than Cecil’s, despite his horrible death.
The frustration is intensified, knowing that many of the vocally appalled by the crime committed against Cecil are serial criminals themselves.
Conservation and environmental organizations are familiar with the importance of identifiability and so usually pick one image of an individual from a big, beautiful, charismatic and majestic species, for their campaigns against animal extinction. Similarly many anti-vivisection organizations are usually picking primates images for their campaigns even though they represent a tiny fraction of the victims (please check our short videoment called Rodents for more on that matter),they do it because they know that humans’ attention and sympathy is more likely to be obtained when they are able to emotionally identify with one victim.
The last couple of weeks prove how nothing, not personification, not using a beloved species, and not horrifying statistics of humans’ destructiveness, can be compared with one identifiable victim.
Bedsides the mentioned reasons for Cecil’s popularity, the most crucial one is his role in humans’ eyes. Being a lion Cecil was already in the top of the pyramid. As high as a non-human can. For most humans lions’ main “function” is to be watched. They are icons of nature and power, symbols of the little wildlife left in the world (they have a totally different “function” for people who actually live near them, but we’ll get to that later). The fact that there aren’t many of them left gives them even extra protection.
However, all of the above are also reasons to attack them. Humans get the strongest kick when killing lions. If you defeated nature at its most power, you must be godlike. So although on top, even lions are not immune.
But Cecil specifically wasn’t ‘just’ a lion but the dominant male of a Group living in a national park, part of a scientific research, and was most fond by the park visitors for his beauty and royalty. He was on top of the top.
In terms of the ability to relate to, the fact that Cecil was a lion is significant, but the fact that this lion was Cecil is a highly crucial element.
Adding to Cecil’s relatively better opening conditions is the fact he was illegally murdered, using illegal methods such as lure, vehicle and spotlight, by an American who bribed local clerks so he could reach him, shot him with a bow and arrow, chased him for 40 hours while he is wounded, shot him with a rifle, skinned him, beheaded him and took the head as a trophy after dumping the rest of his body out in the field.
Not only the murdered identity and the murder operation are significant to the magnitude of the attention, but also the murderer’s identity. A rich American dentist with a rich past of legal and illegal hunting, was the perfect candidate for the role of evil in that story. Walter Palmer is the identifiably bad character, crucial part for every simple story. Only it isn’t one.
Walter Palmer is a bad person indeed but he is a very comfortable villain to pick on. He is not the problem and not even a significant representative of it. He is just the tip of the iceberg. But even humans’ hate needs to be identifiable and he is the perfect match.
Even the more serious demands (more serious than ending the story with putting Palmer personally behind bars), such as a global ban on trophy hunting, won’t even solve trophy hunting itself.
As more airlines change their policy after the Cecil hype, and no longer allow carrying corpses on their planes, power trip scums would find other ways to carry their ego boasters. For the “right” price someone would carry it for them. Someone who is willing to pay so much money to murder someone to prove and exhibit how badass he is, would pay twice as much to show nothing can stop him from continuing his sick hobby, especially if it would become harder to do. Besides, if transporting body parts is restricted some would “settle” for the infamous repulsive dominant display images of them holding a rifle, gloating over a dead animal.
If some countries and some airlines would ban trophy hunting, the industry would get a blow but it won’t cease.
But more importantly a global ban on trophy hunting, is also a comfortable villain to pick on. Trophy hunting is far from being the biggest threat to animals in Africa.
The thing is that the greatest problems are too complex for humans to solve simply.
The Non-Identifiable Problem
Underneath easy targets such as trophy hunters who kill wild animals to hang their heads in their living rooms, there are those who are referred to as poachers, which ironically in many areas of Africa, trophy hunters actually reduce their extent, as we’ll shortly explain.
Still, greater than both and by far wild animals’ biggest problem in Africa, as well as the rest of the world, is habitat loss.
Above these practical problems is the Meta problem, the notion that it is humans’ world and for animals to survive they must benefit their “masters”.
For the locals, wild animals are one of two, a disturbance or a resource. Basically humans don’t share this planet with other species but benefit from them. Some benefits mean they can stay alive as long as they provide, and some benefits mean that they are immediately killed. Anyway it’s always humans’ decisions and according to their interests.
For the locals, big animals (especially predators) are a risk for them, for “their” crops and for the animals they regularly enslave. That’s why they kill them every chance they get.
Ironically when locals kill animals that they consider a threat in the area where they live, they are called poachers, but westerns, who no longer have big animals to shot at in their area, are welcomed to fly thousands of miles from their home to kill the same animals. The reason is that they pay for their murders and the locals don’t.
The locals have a bigger incentive to keep the animals alive for foreigners to kill. They protect them, simply because they are worth to them more alive than dead.
There were many disputes over hunters’ role in conservation long before the Cecil story, and there are even more now. But the relatively hard issues are not addressed. Most of the time hunters pose themselves as great conservationists, proudly wave the species conservation data and the Kenyan statistics since they banned hunting (Kenya has lost about 80% of “its” wildlife since it banned hunting in the late 70’s. The elephant population has dropped 75% while rhinos are down 95%, and large-mammal numbers are declining by about 5% a year). And of course they accuse the hunting opposers as emotional and disconnected.
The hunting opposers argue that if hunters were really about conservation and not about their personal sick ego boast, they would have donated the money they pay to hunt in Africa to conservation organizations instead of taking picture of themselves gloating with their rifles above the animal they just murdered.
Hunters are definitely not conservationists. But hunting, in some cases, does contribute to conservation. That’s how distorted things are in this world. Rich westerns’ bloodlust and power trip is being used to save wild land in poor countries which would otherwise be used for farming, grazing or construction.
Some governments’ decision to privatize some lands helped to save some animals from being mass murdered by the locals who instead let foreigners kill them for a pay.
Hunting opposers argue that there are other ways to give the locals incentives without killing animals, solutions such as ecotourism. The animals are worth to keep as a tourist attraction for westerners who unlike the locals, idealize and romanticize nature, as they come from a place where it has been destroyed long ago. Now they are flying to where the battle over all non-humans was won more recently, and in a way that allows to preserve some “nature capsules” as entertainment. The money and romantic notions of humans, whose ancestors had already destroyed habitats, now stand in conflict with far less privileged humans for doing the same. This is what supposedly saves far less privileged animals – non-humans. Only, it gets even more complicated.
When considering ecotourism, even without the example of Kenya(which declared itself as a non-hunting nation and the poster country of ecotourism, and yet the wild population there decreased because of massive poaching), many countries, for example Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe, home of Cecil, lack some of the essential factors for an effective ecotourism industry and so are “depended” on hunting revenues.
A tourist industry requires a combination of factors such as infrastructure, political stability, a pleasant climate, and large numbers of readily findable animals. As opposed to Kenya’s high savannas, in Tanzania’s woodlands, Zimbabwe’s thorn scrubs, and Namibia’s desert it is nearly impossible to create a luxury photo tourism industry. Unlike mainstream tourists, hunters would put up with rigid conditions as long as there are big and strong animals to kill.
But even when ecotourism is possible, the “don’t shoot at them, look at them” solution is simply diverting the harm. A bigger ecotourism industry means more hotels, more roads, more airplanes, more restaurants, more pollution, more noise, more lights at night and probably more petting zoos which are a great tourist attraction. And that just intensifies animals’ biggest problem, much bigger than trophy hunting- habitat loss.
In many places these are the options. Obviously shooting big, charismatic animals from a vehicle while they are running for their lives to later hang their heads on the wall appears much more acute than systematically destroying their habitat which doesn’t appear at all. There is no photo of a human proudly gloating over the dozens of animals he just doomed with his tractor.
The outward appearance counts much more than the dry, far harsher facts. It is hard to get emotionally attached to habitat loss, let alone compared with the graphically blunt trophy hunting.
That’s the Non-Identifiable Problem.
It is all a long list of wrongs upon wrongs.
Africans are farming domesticated animals. They ship most of the corpses to western countries who can afford it. They murder wild animals which are the natural enemies of “their” animals. As a consequence the population of the wild animals decreases to the westerns’ resent (despite that some of it is a direct result of their demand for meat and that they were doing it for centuries). To solve the problem some governments have decided to privatize the lands. Now that the land is officially theirs, the locals have an economic incentive not to kill wild animals because many westerns are willing to pay for the “privilege” to kill them themselves.
And there is another darker twist. Humans being humans, are not content with what “nature has given them” so couple of decades ago they have started opening breeding farms of wild animals, so more westerns could come and murder more animals for their profit.
The conservation effort has seemingly worked. In the case of lions for example, their gross population increased, only that there are more lions in captivity than in the wild.
And the last wrong for that matter is inflicted on those who are at the absolute bottom of the hierarchy, as lions and other carnivores kept in these kind of hunting farms or even in national parks, are fed with meat from factory farms.
The Identifiable Problem
Many animal rights activists are trying to seize the moment that humans care about animal cruelty and make them connect the dots between the murder of Cecil and the mass and systematic murder of billions of farm animals.
But there is no moment to seize. The best outcome that can happen is a ban on trophy hunting, and even that scenario will most probably increase the number of illegal and local hunting since as we explained earlier, in many places, many animals would still be murdered only with no trophy.
Even the gap between Cecil and other lions is huge. There are thousands of hunting farms mainly in South Africa were lions are condemned to a vicious circle of exploitation. They are bred in captivity, separated from their mothers when they are a few days old so she can produce more cubs, and they could be sent to petting zoos where tourists pay to cuddle with them.
This industry is well-known, mainly because of the volunteer scheme they operate. In order to increase profits many farms pretend to be nursery homes for deserted cubs, deceiving people from around the world who voluntarily come to nurse them until they are big enough to supposedly be released to the wild. Actually when they are too big to be cuddled by tourists they are transferred to the second phase of their exploitation which is the “walking with lions” another tourist attraction, which the tourists have no idea they are walking with lions who were specifically born and raised to make money for their exploiters. The next and last phase is “canned hunting”, a fenced area where the lion is thrown into, to vainly run from an armed human who paid to kill him.
When some volunteers realized what they were deceived to take part in, they exposed the industry. Yet there are thousands of these farms in Africa, with hundreds of thousands of animals produced to be “hunted”. Thousands of lions are forced into these lives and are murdered this way every year. Yet none of them is Cecil. So do you really believe that a fish or a chicken is Cecil?
The leap AR activists are asking the public to make is too big. It is a leap not only from the one to the many, but from the one king of the royal species, who was murdered illegally, in nature and for a trophy, to the billions temporarily living, merely raw materials from artificial selected species.
Our point in this post is to show how many conditions had to be met for this story to get the attention it got. How many crucial factors are necessary for an animal to become an individual.
That’s horrible news for the struggle for factory farmed animals.
If anything, the past 2 weeks are not humans’ awakening of the way they treat animals, the death wish for Walter palmer acts more as a catharsis for non-vegans who abuse animals all their lives and this story is an opportunity to deflect some guilt away from themselves and vindicate their own crimes.
The lesson to learn from the story of Cecil is how humans’ compassion and logic works. For most the story of Cecil is a tragedy, and the story of all other victims is just statistics(only that they are creating that statistics).
Stating that a chicken and a fish are Cecil is rational, and would be a good argument in a rational world, one in which each of the 8 ill children gets as much as one ill child .Unfortunately we don’t live in a rational world.
And the saddest thing about this story is that it shades a light on the horrible lives of one of the most loved and protected species ever.
Cecil was someone. A cow is just a number. A chicken is not even that. And a fish is not even counted as a single being but in grams.
Animals in factory farms are of the least identifiable creatures on earth. And since the best thing you can do for them is preventing their birth, they are even more non-identifiable. They are so non-identifiable that they don’t even exist but as a product of supply and demand, so helping them is by reducing the demand so as to prevent their existence. You can’t get more non-identifiable than that.