Some Thoughts on the Death of Cecil the Lion

I didn’t have a chance last week, but that I have some free time I wanted to write about Cecil the Lion. Specifically, I want to address the vitriolic reaction that some had on Twitter and elsewhere online to the fact that people were up in arms about the death of an animal.

Honestly, I was surprised by the reaction. I know many people feel that there are other issues to be upset about and that certain things demand a call to action. Any of the events in the United States and the globe from the past year should be enough to make people become socially and politically active. That isn’t how humans work and we aren’t wired that way. It just isn’t the case. We have an affinity for animals.

We should care more about Michael Brown. We should care more about the events that transpired in Baltimore. We should be angry about what is happening in Syria. We should be mad about what is happening in Greece. Again, that isn’t how humans mostly work.

But the death of Cecil the Lion wasn’t about a missing plane. It wasn’t about the birth of a royal baby. And it certainly wasn’t about deflated footballs. It was an event that mattered to people. And, I can’t say this enough: the plight of animals and the environment resonates with people. The death of Cecil the Lion presented the opportunity to care about poaching, conservation, the trade in illegal animal parts. It was a moment to look beyond the screen of a tv, a cellphone, or a video game. It resonated with people. Donations in the wake of Cecil’s death meant that one anti-poaching endeavor, at the brink of running out of funding and shutting down, is now fully funded and continue their work.

People cared about something, but for many people that didn’t matter because they cared about the wrong thing. An undercurrent to the negative reaction to Cecil’s death was the unstated argument that some things matter more. Specifically, what matters more are the things that others care about and advocate for in their lives. Furthermore, the reaction suggested that the perceived temporary outrage about Cecil the Lion didn’t matter and it wasn’t as valuable as the issues that other people are concerned about addressing.

Instead of criticizing what people care about, we should foster that concern and hope that they become concerned and aware of other social, political, economic, and environmental issues. These concerns should be fostered because they aren’t separate. Many of them are interconnected.

Personally, the negative reaction that I saw to the positive response of Cecil’s death also resonated with me. If you read my blog and follow me on Twitter, then you know I have a thing for meerkats. That personal interest of mine has had consequences. My Twitter account hemorrhaged followers when I wrote a post about meerkats and academia. I don’t think that had anything to do with my take on academia; I think it was the meerkat metaphor. I sometimes have a drop in followers when I share things about meerkats on Twitter. It hurt at first, but now I don’t care. To riff of The Smiths: Academic Cats and Shit Academics Say are on your side. While meerkats are on mine.

I started following zoos, conservation groups, and other concerned parties on Twitter and Facebook in order to get my meerkat fix. I’ve learned a lot about meerkats over the past few months. And I’ve learned a lot about many other animals facing extinction due to illegal poaching, environmental destruction, and global warming. I don’t like to think that I am ill-informed, but I’ve learned a lot. And it started with meerkats.

My interest in meerkats might seem misguided, even in the realm of the animal kingdom, let along in relation to social and political issues involving people. Meerkats aren’t endangered. However, their homes, and by extension the homes of many other animals, are under threat from the actions of people. Additionally, meerkats could also face future threats from tuberculosis contracted from the expanding domestic livestock industry in southern Africa. I know from learning about other animals that the threats faced by meerkats are significant and capable of undoing even the most robust populations of animals, and, for the most part, they are caused by the actions of people.

In learning about meerkats I’ve become aware of the social construction of their mobs and the important role played by the dominant female and male in the group. Knowing about the social structure of meerkat mobs made me more aware of the importance of Cecil’s death in relation to his family group. (I’m not up all aspects of lions, so excuse any terminology or mischaracterizations.) Cecil protected his family from a range of threats, especially other roving male lions. From what I’ve read, power struggles amongst lions can be a bloody affair leaving cubs and other members of a pride dead or isolated. Cecil’s death is an example of the butterfly effect because, just like with meerkat mobs, the death of a leader means a possible disintegration of the family group.

Without knowing about meerkats I would not have known about the myriad of factors related and connected to Cecil’s death. I wouldn’t know about the difficulties faced by sanctuaries in Africa. I wouldn’t know about the dangers of poaching. I wouldn’t know concretely about the threats animals face by the destruction of their environments.

Social, political, economic, and environmental action starts somewhere. For me, it started with meerkats. For others it started, and hopefully continues, because of the death of Cecil the Lion. When people awake to an issue that resonates with them we should foster it. We should not belittle it and chastise them for not caring about what we think is important.

In closing, I’ll leave you with this song by the punk rock band, NOFX. I posted it last week on Twitter, but I think it worth posting again.

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