Ethics & Morality

Cecil the Lion – a lesson in animal theology


A dentist called Walter Palmer has killed a lion called Cecil. Cecil the lion is now dead, and never has the world been so united in grief. Well, perhaps not since the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. But for the death of an animal, the global outpouring has been extraordinary – hysterical, even. RIP Cecil – you will forever be in our hearts.

Walter the dentist is from Wisconsin. Cecil the lion was from Zimbabwe. Walter seemingly paid $50,000 for the pleasure of killing Cecil, though it isn’t clear who granted the permit. Perhaps it was illicit, but Walter wasn’t to know. He went in search of exhilaration. He just wanted to hunt and bag a trophy. It beats filling teeth.

But now Cecil the lion is dead. He was shot with a crossbow, then beheaded and skinned. No doubt the head is off to the taxidermist, destined to gather dust on someone’s wall, and the skin will be stapled, stretched, salted and cured, eventually to grace the floor of a safari-themed bedroom, or perhaps a hunting cabin in Dallas.

Having hunted Cecil the lion, Walter the dentist has become the hunted. Piers Morgan has put a bounty on the head of the “smirking, vile, callous assassin with no heart”. He proclaims: “I will sell tickets for $50,000 to anyone who wants to come with me and track down fat, greedy, selfish, murderous businessmen like Dr Palmer in their natural habit.”

Animal rights group PETA (that’s People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) issued a fatwa:

Hunting is a coward’s pastime. If, as has been reported, this dentist and his guides lured Cecil out of the park with food so as to shoot him on private property, because shooting him in the park would have been illegal, he needs to be extradited, charged, and, preferably, hanged.

To get a thrill at the cost of a life, this man gunned down a beloved lion, Cecil with a high-powered weapon. All wild animals are beloved by their own mates and infants, but to hunters like this overblown, over-privileged little man, who lack empathy, understanding, and respect for living creatures, they are merely targets to kill, decapitate, and hang up on a wall as a trophy.

So, Walter the dentist must be hanged for shooting Cecil the lion. Notwithstanding the fact that 23,000 African elephants were killed for their tusks last year, and 1004 African rhinos were killed for their horns. And let’s not talk about shark-fin soup; or the puppies burned and boiled alive to be served with chow mein; or the 50,000 greyhounds hanged in Spain every year for no other reason than being slow hunters. In England, a dog is man’s best friend. In China, it is dinner. In Spain, it is tree decoration.

But Walter killed Cecil the lion. Cecil had a name; an identity. Cecil the lion was loved, and so must be properly mourned and buried with dignity, if not a fitting liturgy.

The Rev’d Andrew Linzey is Director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics and the world’s leading animal theologian: “We want to put ethical concern for animals on the intellectual agenda, and contribute to an enlightened public debate about animals,” he write matter-of-factly in his ‘Welcome‘. But he gave an interview to Newsweek recently which strikes a deeper chord:

“I am not a starry-eyed idealist. We’re experiencing a gradual paradigm shift from the idea that animals are commodities to the idea that, as sentient creatures, they have dignity, value and rights. The Christian church has made similar shifts on the rights of women, and gays, and of the child. Things advance. This is where somebody like Richard Dawkins, say, gets religion so terribly wrong. He doesn’t understand that the church is like a river and changes, much as science moves on. He dwells on the worst of its history. That’s like judging secularism by Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot.”

The Rev’d Andrew Linzey would preside over a service of interment for a golden retriever or a cat, but perhaps not a goldfish – unless it had a name and was loved. “I suppose it has to do with intelligence, and the social circle frequented by the deceased,” he explains. “You have to ask what you are doing at a funeral service. You’re thanking God for the life of the animal, or human being, and commending a life into the hands of God.”

And just as he is about to be lured into advocating a liturgy for the burial of a beetle, he urges that we feel a different pulse:

“Allow me to re-orientate this discussion ever so slightly. From God’s perspective, every creature is loved or is no creature at all. I’m not saying we have a duty to pick up every dead animal and conduct a complete funeral service for them.. Death is woven into the fabric of existence. Death deserves acknowledgment.”

Some meat we eat. Some meat we kill for sport. And some meat we walk twice a day, talk to, stroke and love. The Linzey doctrine of animal theology seeks to re-orientate human apprehension toward:

“The advocation of progressive disengagement (from cruelty). If God so loves the world, non-rational creatures must have a look-in too. Human beings have a responsibility of a kind that mice or giraffes don’t. We are not the master species but the servant species. Our power should be exercised in looking after creation.”

Man is free to participate in the order of creation by knowledge and action. But he must both know and act. How can man kill without compassion? How can he consume without conscience? There is an order of creation, and man is at the pinnacle, made in the image of God. But he is unique in the application of moral inquiry. If a prawn cannot sin, how much more perfect is the nobility, dignity and character of a lion? Should it not be left free in its potency and possibility to proclaim the glory of God?