Even in a world that heinously tortures and murders human beings, we can care about the torture and maltreatment of animals.
After a day full of birthday festivities, I returned home to news that swiftly put me in a bad mood. A white American man named Walter Palmer, in collusion with local poachers, had apparently paid 50,000 pillars to kill a nationally renowned lion in Zimbabwe. As I learned more about what happened, my heart sank a little more with each detail. Cecil the lion was a revered member of the southern African landscape. Poachers luring him off protected land. The man, a dentist, smiling as he stood over Cecil’s dead body. The animal’s drawn-out suffering for hours before it passed. The inevitable killings of his cubs now that Cecil was gone.
I was upset. Infuriated, even. Not just because I’m a Leo and the lion is my spirit animal, or because this was another fucking embarrassing North American killing another group’s cherished and rare animal (see here and here). But also because humans are insolent, greedy creatures that build their entire economic systems around unsustainable extraction and pollution of resources. Because we can be so vile and depraved to actually enjoy killing of animals and humans alike. To think it’s sport.
But very quickly, the discussions about Cecil the lion became something more. Folks seemed to want to know why a lion was so important when the deaths of unarmed black folks at the hands of police regularly go unpunished and unacknowledged. There was the righteous outrage of vegans and vegetarians everywhere directed at the hypocrisy of cheeseburger-munching meateaters who had the nerve to express compassion for this particular animal (rather than the thousands slaughtered in plants everyday). And some particularly stupid folks tried to argue that lions really are more economically valuable than black people and thus deserving of more compassion.
In short, Cecil’s killing triggered a lot of kneejerk reactions that seemed to decry people’s ability to care about more than one cause alongside a huge amount of self-aggrandizing bullshit. Both lack a certain amount of depth and nuance that seemed easily within reach.
Also, let’s not be confused that the killing of a creature beloved by black people isn’t intimately and inextricably tied to #blacklivesmatter. Because it is. A rich white man feeling entitled to go to a black country wielding violence and murder to take resources, for sheer entertainment and pleasure, is the story of colonialism. Absolute disrespect of local people and local customs because of one’s sense of superiority and entitlement is how imperialism continues to function. I mean, the guy’s name would have to be Cecil DeBeer Blood Diamond Rhodes to be more symbolic. His selfishness and cruelty in the face of black love and grief gets at the very heart of the cry that black lives matter. That our humanity, our everyday needs and desires and dreams, they matter, too.
I am reminded somehow of the story of Florida police officer who killed a black boy’s puppy in front of him as the child wept. That’s the kind of depravity that killed a lion that black people loved.
Folks should stop pretending that killing something for food is the same thing as killing for pleasure and love of death. In the very same way, “black-on-black” crime is not the same as police brutality. Even in a world that heinously tortures and murders human beings, we can care about the torture and maltreatment of animals. In some ways, that connection to other life forms is what makes us human. And I don’t care less about black people just because I care about the loss of this beloved creature.
Yes, all animals matter. But I care about Cecil. And all lives most certainly matter, but I care about the precarity and seeming disposability of black lives. I can care about multiple things at the same time. And I can even care about certain endangered groups over others because of their marginalization.
I want my future kids to survive state violence and I want them to live in a world where lions, elephants, and rhinoceroses still roam free. I want all of these things. I am all of these things. And that’s just fine.
Khadijah Costley White is an assistant professor in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Find her on Twitter here.