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Sunday, August 2, 2015

The killing of Cecil

The killing of a well-known lion personality for a trophy sparked such an angry response against his killer, that he apologized and then gave up his dental practice.  The social media, in effect, destroyed him.  Wildlife authorities want to talk to him but they can't find him.

You begin with the fact that animals have personalities.  Anyone who has pets knows that.  This personality, who presided over two prides and wore a tracking collar for an Oxford University research project, captured a large coterie of fond admirers with his personality.  The same week he was killed, five elephants were poached.  Not having reached the personality status of Cecil, hardly anyone noticed their deaths, except a few wildlife advocates.

The rage against the killing of Cecil is composed of many factors. One is a growing fury at the cavalier attitude toward killing that is so dramatically demonstrated by the police shootings of unarmed people and the rash of deaths of minority women in our jails.  These incidents of killings and unexplained deaths widen and define the cultural divide among Americans.  There is a rage against abortion based upon an alleged respect for life, but there is a great tolerance for death by firearms,  based on a claimed Constitutional right.  That rage and and that tolerance are often held by the same people.  Beyond the factors of lack of education and low intelligence, there is a prevalence of mental incoherence and thought disorder that makes it impossible to comprehend the conflicting stances assumed by many people.  However, the swell of disapproval against the killing of Cecil is indicative of a moral strain that runs  powerfully through Americans.  It unleashes an anguish over the needless but persistent deaths that plague American society.

America does have a tradition of hunting big game that is expressed in its mythology.  We have many stories about skilled hunters, such as Davey Crockett and Daniel Boone, but we also have stories of the wasteful and greedy slaughter of the bison left to rot on the plains.  The slaughter of bison was permitted and encouraged as a means of subduing the Indians who were trying to retain the plains as their vital habitat.   Such profligate waste is inconceivable and not tolerated among Americans whose families grew out of the ethical climate that was once rural America.

I come from that background.  Both my mother and father had farm backgrounds.  And we hunted.  But there were strict rules about hunting and the handling of firearms.  If a child pointed a finger at someone in a pistol fashion, an adult would quickly and sternly chide the child, even raise the threat of breaking the offending finger off.  Even a childish and playful charade of shooting and killing was regarded as an expression of character and values.  There were guns on the farmsteads and in the households, but children were disciplined for playing "guns."  But we did hunt.

When  I was a child during the depression and World War II,  hunting was still done to augment the food supply.  Along with digging dandelion greens in the spring, and picking wild berries in the summer, we hunted in the fall.  At the time, there was no big game to hunt in Illinois, but we did hunt rabbits and wild fowl.  The rule was that you ate what you killed.  You did not kill anything you did not intend to eat.  No one hunted for trophies.  People who killed as a sport rather than as a harvest were considered perverted and morally dangerous.  That was the ethic of the time. 

The ethic was that one shot animals for food or that were a threat to the farm and the safety of the humans and farm animals.  Rifles and shotguns were kept nearby as tools for dealing with predatory raccoons that broke into chicken houses or foxes that stalked baby pigs.  One of my cousins, who could shoot a pheasant out of the air with a .22, hunted fox and other fur bearers for the money.  But he was also an avid conservationist who warned against the dangers of wiping out the species he hunted.  When he observed a decline in the population of a species, he stopped hunting it. 

I associate hunting back then with food.  I can recall a special family dinner of my grandmother's mushroom and sage-stuffed quail.  And another meal of roasted squab, wild young pigeons.  As a boy, I  clipped recipes from a magazine called Open Road for Boys and learned to fry rabbit or make hasenpfeffer, as well  as hush puppies to go with the catfish and perch we caught.  My mother stressed how our hunting and fishing stretched the food budget.  We stressed that it was good food.

I also recall that hunting involved a degree of custom and ceremony that had to do with our relationship to the outdoors.  As a young man, I duck hunted with friends on the Mississippi River.  In late August and September, we registered for site drawings in the chutes and sloughs on the river, and then constructed blinds in preparation for the water fowl season.  When the season opened, we got up long before dawn, trekked to the river, got into boats, and took up positions in the duck blinds to be in place when the sun rose.  As we sipped from our Thermoses of hot coffee, the the river echoed with the occasional squawking of duck calls, as hunters tried to lure the ducks in.  There would be sporadic flurries of shotgun firing. We got ducks, but actually the ritual of being on the river during those crisp mornings was the real reason we were out there.  On many mornings, we shot no ducks.  Ducks were  the reason we were out there, but not the primary motivation.

Two of the  men in the group I belonged to were brothers who ran a river road restaurant in one of the small towns  on the river.  One year one of the men got a mallard so beautiful that he had it stuffed and put it in his office.  But most of the ducks we shot were cooked.  One of the brothers was a chef who had worked in a restaurant that featured game on its menu.  He would cook a bunch of ducks we bagged for a late-season dinner the group held with their families at his restaurant.  Many people do not like wild duck because it tastes fishy.  Ducks and fish share the same habitat and the same diet of aquatic vegetation.  But the chef could prepare the ducks and roast them so that they were so crisp of skin and tender and richly flavored of flesh that the families talked about those meals all year.  They included other gifts from the river, such as turtle soup, and produce from the rich river valley.  They were part of the Thanksgiving season that reminded us of the beneficence of nature.   

The ethic of that group of river people was that you didn't kill anything you did not eat.  Killing was not considered a sport.  Hunting was an activity in which humans engaged their dependency on nature.  It involved the application of skills and ethical relationship with nature.  No one in that group killed for trophies, nor did most of the hunters I knew back then.  In fact, we were disdainful and wary of people who killed as a sport.  We were also skeptical of the idea of propagating wildlife so that people could kill it.  It seemed a perversion of the relationship that humankind had with nature.  

There are those who enjoy killing.  As commercial hunting preserves were established, we made fun  of people who thought that "shooting fish in a barrel" demonstrated some kind of manhood.  Those commercial hunts required no knowledge, little skill, but mainly provided participants bragging rights to say they had killed something.  

The social media contains many reactions to the reactions against the killing of Cecil. The many wasteful and depressing deaths that occur in America are all deserving of notice and examination.  But the killing of Cecil as a trophy triggered an old ethic rooted deep in the land, in nature, against killing as a sport or an expression of manhood.  That ethic is one that divides the nation.  It is a battleground in the culture war.  

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States