A lion is not a chicken: Essential distinctions for the perplexed

July 30, 2015 Originally published on SFGate

One of my favorite snarling right-wing attacks, whenever I criticize Christianity as a whole or the Catholic church specifically – which is frequently, on both counts, for all manner of homophobia, sexual dread, constriction of human spirit, and so on – goes something like this:

“I’d like to see Morford try his liberal, anti-religion shtick in (Angry Hardline Islamic Country) and see how long he survives! Why does SFGate let him get away with this? He’d never say the same thing about Allah!”

It’s as amusing as it is clumsy and unsophisticated, the lopsided belief that everything is the same everywhere, that context does not matter, that it makes sense to draw ham-fisted equivalencies where none exist, mostly because it’s easier to lash out in a rage than it is to unpack moral or intellectual complexities.

(My response to the haters: Christianity is the dominant religion here, where I live, directly impacting my country and world, for millennia. Islam has no bearing on American life, law, behavior, moral code. I respond to and work within the context and freedoms as they unfold here. False equivalencies are for simpletons and Fox News).

Which brings us to the latest Internet Outrage Du Jour, AKA Cecil the Lion (or rather, #CeciltheLion, which is the new #RachelDolezal), the handsome, suddenly very famous 13-year-old Zimbabwean beast who was recently shot to death, perhaps illegally, by an American dentist and pseudo-macho bow hunter named Walter Palmer, a suburban white guy – and apparent fugitive of justice! – from Minnesota who supposedly paid 50K to kill a beloved, protected animal (and tourist attraction) for no real reason except hollow thrill, for trophy and ego and, well, that’s about it. (Headline winner: “Pussy kills cat” – thanks Dave Pell!)

And oh, the outrage! The instantly furious Internet mob, seeking Palmer’s head on a stick! And Palmer himself, desperately claiming he had no idea that lion was famous, claiming he was misled by his guides and that his hunt was fully legal – although officials, at present, seem to disagree. The truth is out there. Or is it?

Quite surprised at the dentist killing a lion outcry. When the Royals are involved nobody says a word #CecilTheLion pic.twitter.com/Kc610HDKp9

— Saggydaddy (@Saggydaddy) July 28, 2015

But wait! Amidst the shock and disgust, is there also (dare we say it) rampant hypocrisy? Must the Internet hordes at least tacitly acknowledge the absurdity of defending a single dead lion, however beautiful and beloved, in faraway Africa, surrounded as we are by massive slaughterhouses, fast-food addictions, In n’ Out Burgers galore? Many seem to think so. We cannot deny it: We’re a nation that slaughters animals on a massive and terrible scale, every single day. Millions of chickens, hogs, rabbits and ducks and cows, most living in truly horrific conditions, killed via industrial practices too sickening for the law to allow anyone to see. It’s gruesome.

What’s more, we seem happy enough to turn a blind eye to the nearly three million (not a typo) unwanted dogs and cats put down every year in America, the result of idiotic breeding, irresponsible/incapable pet ownership, general heartlessness. Where’s the outrage over that? Verily, when it comes to our treatment of the animal kingdom overall, doesn’t hypocrisy abound? It most certainly does.

To a point.

Nevertheless, a vital distinction must be made. The moral/spiritual compass must not be discarded completely, lest everything be lumped together, lest we become like screeching Bible literalists, like one-size-fits-all dogmatists, like militant vegans who see no difference in swatting a mosquito versus slaughtering a whale. Here’s the thing: The killing of animals for food is far different than hunting down a majestic, solitary, almost-but-not-quite-endangered wild animal for no other reason than to give yourself relative value in the world (i.e.; to make you feel like a “man,” or whatever).

Put another way: Killing animals for food makes fundamental sense to us; hunting for necessity has been around as long as we’ve been upright. Killing for trophy/sport? To prove your thuggish dominion over the animal kingdom, because no one listens to you back home and your life is terrifically boring and you’ve got something to prove? That’s new. That has minimal spiritual, intellectual, or moral validation. It’s just cruel.

This is the message: Context matters. You must have a mind – and a heart – nimble enough to make distinctions, lest nothing be of any deeper value and everything is shoved into a grand pile of Who Gives a Damn or OMG Everything Is Totally Precious We Should Only Eat Air. What’s true for Cecil is also true of other species, too.

How quickly the press forgot about Donald Trumps spoiled kids being exotic animal killers but I didn’t. #CecilTheLion pic.twitter.com/nVEcY0Q62Q— Meghan Chavalier (@MeghanChavalier) July 28, 2015

Take sharks. Few dispute the inherent cruelty and waste in capturing these massive, ancient hunters, hacking off their fins for a bland soup and throwing the rest away, despite how we ruthlessly harvest the oceans for thousands of other species. What’s different?

Same can be said for whales, long slaughtered for nothing more than false sense of “tradition” or for specialty foods no one really needs anymore. Also true for elephants, slaughtered for their ivory. Is there a distinction?

If you can shoot one of these to death with a crossbow, skin it and behead it, and feel nothing but warped macho pride and take a selfie, the world has really little use for you

If you can shoot one of these to death with a crossbow, skin it and behead it, and feel nothing but warped macho pride and take a selfie, the world has really little use for you

It’s even true for trees. Greedy poachers have taken chainsaws to many an ancient redwood, those massive, awe-inspiring behemoths, many of which have been around since Jesus was knee-high to a pagan goddess, hacking them to death for nothing more than a single “pretty” burl to sell. Why does that feel so wrong? When we harvest millions of other trees per year for lumber?

The difference, of course, is intention, connection, soul. The difference is a certain level of inviolable sacredness, something primal and ancient, a line that we can’t quite pinpoint exactly (because it touches upon divine ground) but which must try, however awkwardly, to keep intact.

this man is disgusting. #WalterJamesPalmer #CecilTheLion http://t.co/zwxHslPzgg

— Shannen Doherty (@DohertyShannen) July 28, 2015

Our collective moral compass is already confused and misshapen enough, isn’t it? We don’t need to destroy everything for bullshit profit, trophy, app or ego, do we?

I’m going to do something unusual here: I’m going plagiarize myself, and repost a small portion of a column I wrote fully 13 years ago (!), all about Japan’s then-shameful plan to resurrect its whale hunt, to much international derision. Sad to say, this bit still holds true today. (Feel free to swap in “lion” for the whales, Walt Palmer for Japan, and shift the context, however slightly, accordingly).

Here is my hypothesis: Maybe we are so horrified at a major developed nation’s desire to resume the slaughter of this most amazing of mysterious sea creatures because we sense some sort of fragile progress has been made, and is now in jeopardy.

Maybe most of us subconsciously consider it a step forward in the intellectual and spiritual advancement of our species that just because we can kill these powerful and spiritually loaded creatures without wiping them out entirely, just because there might be enough of them to chop up a few hundred for a snack, doesn’t mean we actually should, doesn’t mean we have some sort of anthropological imperative to kill every creature on the planet simply because they might [look good on our wall] go well with a nice Pinot Gris or sake martini.

Perhaps we consider it a subtle but profound step up the evolutionary ladder to slowly but surely remove long-revered and highly sacred animals from the largely gluttonous and omnivorous human diet [or our need for ignoble trophy].

And hence maybe a return to munching of whale meat seems like a devolution, a harsh return to a way of thinking about the planet that basically lumps everything into one of two categories: things we can own/exploit/kill/eat/bomb/deep-fry, and things with which we can calmly and even beautifully [and respectfully] coexist.

And here we land on it: Hunting Cecil for sport, for trophy, for the bogus satisfaction of your misaligned ego does everything to promote the former, and absolutely nothing to advance the latter. Simple enough, really.

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Mark Morford

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