The suffering of a lion

Cecil the lion, the pride of the Zimbabwean plains, is no more. He was shot by someone who planned to make a rug out of his skin, and hang his head over a fireplace.

The tragic hero of this story is both charismatic and photogenic. But the villain too, is worthy of a Hollywood movie: Walter Palmer, a rich American dentist, was armed with a crossbow and attacked Cecil in the dark of night.

Cecil and Palmer are the stars of the ‘Oscar winning’ drama that is holding people in trance all over the world. The battle has already been fought, but now the dentist is on the run, and the hunter has become the hunted. The internet is ablaze with death threats against Palmer. But that’s nothing compared to what the future might hold in store for him. A petition for his extradition has been signed by more than 160,000 people. As Zimbabwean prisons don’t have a great reputation, I guess I don’t even blame Palmer for running…

Lions are big, charismatic, wonderful, creatures, but Cecil was not just a lion. In Zimbabwe, he was a celebrity among lions, a kind of a mascot. Cecil was part of a research project by Oxford University, and he carried a GPS, which the hunters unsuccessfully tried to destroy. And Cecil was killed illegally: he was baited away from an area where hunting was prohibited.

These are all factors that increase our anger and indignation about this evil act. But these factors, even though aggravating, are hardly morally relevant. What really counts, in Cecil’s case, is not that he was famous, big and strong and beautiful, or that he was a lion. What counts is that he was a sentient being, a being capable of experiencing pleasure and pain.

After a shot from Palmer’s crossbow, which only wounded Cecil, the lion suffered for forty hours in hiding, before he was found and killed by the hunters. That’s where our attention should go to. If we think Cecil’s suffering and killing were not OK and believe that he didn’t deserve this, that no-one deserves this, then maybe, slowly but surely, we can start opening ourselves up to the suffering of so many other beings.

The only relevant trait, his sentience, is what Cecil has in common with billions of other beings, who don’t have names, but who can suffer like Cecil did. I am very happy that so many people are outraged about what happened to this lion. And I hope that their outrage and their compassion will spill over to other domains. Cecil was one animal. The other 600 lions that are killed every year can feel too, just like Cecil. The other poached animals are sentient like lions. And the 180 million chickens, pigs and cows that are killed for food every day, they too can feel.

It is this capacity for pleasure and pain, that connects people and animals. It is the quality that does not just connect people of different skin color, gender, sexual orientation or religion, but which also unites human and nonhuman animals. You can experience pleasure and pain whether you are white or black, man or woman, or have an opposable thumb, or manes, or a trunk, a tail or wings.

It will take some time, but one day, we will all realize that in this capacity for happiness and suffering, we are all very similar.