Walter Palmer, dentist and lion slayer, now on the internet hunt list

It was not a good day for anyone when Walter the trophy hunter met Cecil the iconic lion, and now the deadeye hunter is in the eye of an internet shaming storm. No amount of hunter-speak can make this right, Neil Macdonald writes.

It was not a good day for anyone when Walter the trophy hunter met Cecil the iconic lion

Piper Hoppe, 10, from Minnetonka, Minn., holds a sign at the doorway of River Bluff Dental clinic in protest against the killing of Cecil, a famous lion in Zimbabwe. Protesters have made a pilgrimage to dentist Walter Palmer's clinic and pilloried him on social media over the trophy hunt. (Eric Miller / Reuters)

Walter Palmer, Minnesota dentist, deadeye archer, and stalker of fierce creatures, is probably too frantic at the moment to reflect rationally on what's happening to him.

But, really, if anyone should understand, it's Palmer.

He's become a trophy. An exotic one, at that. He's joined the great circle of life.

And the people stalking him are enjoying themselves every bit as much as he clearly did when he was out there being Walter Palmer, apex predator, killing wild things all over the world, and posing with them on trophy hunting sites.

Unfortunately for Palmer, his latest conquest was Cecil, a famous lion beloved by tourists in southern Africa.

He was also foolish enough, it seems, to pose with Cecil's corpse, and now the internet, the most apex of all apex predators, is stalking him.

Big Bwana

Palmer looks to have now shuttered his practice, has taken down his website and is generally trying to vanish, after protesting that his pastime is legal (a rather elastic term, of course, in Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe).

At least he appears to understand that an internet shaming as epic as his can't be managed or controlled, maybe only survived.

But Palmer, like most unwitting prey, has left an easy-to-follow trail. In retrospect, given the Cecil episode, his hubris and capacity for euphemism is spectacular.

Palmer has until now delighted in the Big Bwana role. He's a "trophy hunter," with a taste for endangered species.

A trophy shot of dentist/bow hunter Walter Palmer from his now closed Facebook page. (CBC)

In fact, he has killed all sorts of them, all over the world, and he does it all with a bow and arrow, which he considers much more sporting than using a rifle.

(A rifle, mind you, is what his assistants had to use to finish off Cecil, some 40 hours after Palmer managed only to wound the big cat.)

What's really interesting reading, though, is the language the trophy-hunting world has invented to deal with the fact that bwanas don't enjoy quite the same respect they once did.

In that world, in which Palmer is a star, hunting is a "proud heritage." Animals are not killed, shot, or pierced by razor-sharp arrows, they're "harvested" or "taken."

Safari Club International, an organization dedicated to celebrating the bwana, maintains a scoring system for rating these "harvests," and even distinguishes between "free-range" and "estate-taken" animals (estates being basically private hunting zoos for really rich people).

Its website helpfully explains how to obtain an endangered species import permit from the U.S. government. (Who knew such a document exists?)

According to a painfully hagiographic profile of Palmer in the New York Times a few years ago — he can apparently hit a playing card at 100 yards — this sort of killing is considered by hunting cognoscenti as an almost worshipful act, especially when done with bow and arrow rather than a big gun, which can finish the job instantly.

"It is a personal achievement to harvest any big-game animal with a bow and arrow," Glen Hisey, a big-game record-keeper, told the Times. "It is a way of honouring that animal for all time."

After the 'harvest'

Actually, in the trophy pictures, Palmer's honorees just look bloody and savaged.

In one, shirtless and proud, he embraces a large, limp, blood-encrusted leopard.

In another, he squats happily behind an endangered bighorn sheep. And the massive white rhinoceros he "took" in South Africa, reportedly the biggest ever downed by a bow and arrow, looks almost comically docile pictured beside the ecstatic hunter.

Palmer's cohort talk a lot about noble ideas in their zeal to promote and defend what they probably know down deep isn't a terribly noble hobby.

Sort of like the Wall Street vultures who talked about being "wealth creators," even as they nearly destroyed the national economy.

The trophy-hunting gang brag about their "fight to conserve wildlife." They are "humanitarians," concerned with education and promoting family traditions, despite increasing attacks from "anti-hunting extremists" in the media and, increasingly, in government.

Palmer himself wrote on his dental website that when he's not making smiles beautiful, he travels the world "observing nature."

Taking the bait

Safari Club international advertises that it maintains "strategic partnerships" to sustain big game animals, although its explanations of how it accomplishes that are short on details.

One example: it "monitors the status and range of lions," and promotes "a comprehensive lion-management strategy." In the process, it "articulates an actionable vision for lions."

Zimbabwe hunter Theo Bronkhorst, left, and Zimbabwean safari operator Honest Ndlovu have been charged with "failing to prevent an unlawful hunt" in the death of Cecil. Bronkhorst pleaded not guilty and was released on bail. The two are reported to have received $50,000 for the hunt. (Philimon Bulawayo / Reuters)

Translated, one suspects that means it tries to ensure there are sufficient lions in Africa for its clients and members to keep on killing.

The continent's lion populations have, after all, dwindled by some 60 per cent in recent decades, according to some tallies, thanks in part to people like Walter Palmer.

What I suspect really makes him the perfect shaming target, though, is the weird after-harvest smile.

He enjoys satisfying his atavistic urges so much that he's willing to pay Zimbabwe's hunting industry $50,000 or so for the privilege of shooting a male lion.

I've actually watched the strange pleasure killing can provoke. On a bear-hunting documentary for CBC, I once accompanied camouflaged men lugging bows and guns into the Northern Ontario forest, curious about how they track and kill such powerful, fast, elusive creatures.

It turned out they filled steel drums with honey-laced garbage, then climbed up into little treehouses and waited. Eventually, as the hungry beasts rooted in the garbage bait, they opened fire.

One of them, a Swedish fellow, posed later with a dead animal, holding open its jaws and making bizarre growling noises for the video camera.

Now, a big-game bwana like Walter Palmer no doubt sees himself as an elite, far above such happy butchery.

But at least the bear hunters actually did butcher and eat their kills.

Palmer just wanted Cecil's skin and head. And, by the way, Cecil was lured into taking his arrow by bait.

Cecil the lion, with his distinctive black mane, is shown here at rest in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. The head of Zimbabwe's safari association said the killing was unethical and that it couldn't be classified as a hunt since the lion was lured into the kill zone. (Andy Loveridge/Wildlife Conservation Research Unit/Associated Press)


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.