David Crisp: Sympathy for Cecil? That’s how we’re wired


David Crisp

When I deliver the Outpost on Thursdays, I have for years listened to conservative talk radio. It probably has made me more liberal than I ought to be. My contrarian streak runs deep.

While I often disagree with what I hear, I am rarely surprised by it. Talk radio doesn’t survive by causing listeners to question their preconceptions. But when the shooting of Cecil, the lion in Africa, dominated the news for a few days this summer, I was surprised by the reaction on the radio. In today’s America, even the illegal shooting of an animal becomes partisan fodder.

It wasn’t exactly as if the radio hosts defended the shooting, but they sure had an odd take on it. Aaron Flint on “Voices of Montana” had on a guest who made the case that big game hunting actually is good for wildlife populations. That may be, but no matter how strongly you may believe in the merits of hunting as a conservation measure, it does not follow that the world becomes a better place every time a human being shoots an animal.

Glenn Beck’s program, as usual, pushed the case even further, slighting those who mourned the death of such a beautiful creature. One of his co-hosts even argued that he thought his own family was more beautiful than any old African lion.

This really misses the point. I love my family more than I will ever love a lion, but when it comes to sheer beauty, perhaps only the Siberian tiger is comelier than an African lion. The various members of the feline family, including the humble housecat, are a near-perfect merger of form and function. Felines are as well designed to survive any calamity, and look good doing it, as anything it is possible to imagine. We don’t keep cats around to fetch the paper in the morning.

Much of the reason radio hosts felt compelled to criticize criticism of the shooting was because they knew that doing so would upset liberals. Attacking defenders of the weak and endangered is just irresistible for certain conservatives.

To the extent that the radio talkers really cared about the issue, other than just taking pleasure in poking an open wound, they professed dismay that the death of a lion would raise so much public outcry when ISIS is beheading Americans, mad shooters are gunning down Americans, abortionists are murdering millions of potential Americans, and gay couples are torturing Americans by making them bake wedding cakes.

But outrage over the death of a mere lion would surprise no one who has ever edited a newspaper. Newspapers can print stories every day of the year about people shooting people without prompting even a single letter to the editor.  But let an animal get hurt by some cruel misdeed, and the public will let you know about it. If you want to grab headlines, go kick a limping dog.

So Cecil’s death became big news. According to the New York Times, “More than 2,100 articles had been posted to Facebook by mid-August, according to data from the social media tracking firm CrowdTangle, where they were shared about 3.6 million times, and liked 1.3 million times. According to Twitter, mentions of Cecil peaked at nearly 900 tweets a minute, for a total of more than 3 million.”

I suppose that is why conservative radio’s attack on poor Cecil surprised me. I never imagined that this special empathy for animals is something that lives only in the soft hearts of liberals. It seems to me to be a perfectly natural human response, and a healthy one.

I don’t know about you, but I know why I don’t think too much about ISIS beheadings: They are too awful. Even if I watched videos of the beheadings, which I will not do, I would not be able to get my head around the horror of those deeds.

Animals are different. I have killed animals for food. I eat animals practically every day. This gives me both power over them and an obligation toward them. Their deaths sustain me, and they chasten me.

I sometimes wonder what aspect of American society today future generations will look upon with the same repugnance that contemporary Americans now feel toward slavery. The answer always comes back to one thing: The cruel and wicked ways we treat so many farm animals raised for food. Yet I still eat them.

We make a living off animals, make companions of them, make idols of them. They remind us of our humanity in ways that mere humans cannot.

In E.B. White’s wonderful 1948 essay “Death of a Pig,” he wrote that he was shaken to the core when a pig he was raising for slaughter died after a painful illness. “He had evidently become precious to me,” he wrote, “not that he represented a distant nourishment in a hungry time, but that he had suffered in a suffering world.”

When people mourn for Cecil the lion, they do not mourn because they care more for animals than for people. They mourn because nothing makes us more human than suffering with our fellow sufferers.

David Crisp has worked for newspapers since 1979. He has been editor and publisher of the Billings Outpost since 1997. The Outpost is published every Thursday and is available for free all over Billings and in nearby communities.

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