Last month, a 1-year-old boy died after being hit in his stroller by a car fleeing a Chicago shooting.
His death hasn’t received nearly as much media attention or public outcry as the killing of a lion named Cecil in Africa.
“So many times we see someone suffering or in pain and we think, ‘Did they do something to deserve it?’ said Dr. Geoffrey Ream, associate professor at the Adelphi University School of Social Work in Garden City, New York. “This happened with Trayvon Martin (in Florida). [People said] ‘He was no angel.’ An animal is not capable of reasoning, so we give them a pass and don’t turn off our empathy the way we do for people.”
A 2013 study of students at Northeastern University found that people feel more compassion toward hurt dogs than adult humans. The researchers reported vulnerability as the main reason. Puppies can’t defend themselves, but people can.
“Maybe we let our relationships with other humans become fraught and put too much responsibility on other people to be a certain way, to the point that only animals can satisfy us,” Ream explained.
When people sense that there’s a threat to the social order or that something is going to harm all of society, Reams says moral panic occurs.
“What may be underlying this moral panic is that we don’t like the idea of people harming animals because it’s against the social order and it’s against the social order for this guy to go to another country to do something so blatantly illegal and not be held responsible,” said Ream.
While some instances of moral panic lead to social change, like Occupy Wall Street, Ream says others don’t, such as the one over the Columbine High School shooting.
The Lion Had a Name
Each year about 600 lions are legally hunted and killed, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The difference is that Cecil lived in a protected national park in Zimbabwe.
Authorities say trophy hunter Walter J. Palmer, a dentist from Minnesota, shot Cecil with a crossbow after luring the lion away from the park. When the injured lion escaped, authorities said, Palmer found him nearly two days later and shot him.
“This dentist isn’t very different from the thousands of people who are trophy hunting, but he had the unfortunate distinction of killing an animal with a name,” said Samuel M. Richards, senior lecturer in sociology at Penn State University. “That name really made the lion lovable. If we name an animal, it’s a game changer. For instance, people are connected to dogs, but there are wild dogs all over the world and they aren’t given names. Once we name them, it changes everything.”
Richards says the killing of Cecil adds to the concerns around environmental changes.
“Particularly these days, when we’re all hearing the stories about climate change and the extinction of species and the transformation of the environment as we know it, there’s a deep underlying fear of what is to come,” Richards said.
According to Panthera, an organization that focuses on wildcat conservation, there were about 200,000 lions living in the wild in Africa a century ago. Today, there is estimated to be less than 30,000.
Illegal killing, habitat loss, and habitat fragmentation are to blame for the fact that lions teeter on extinction, states Panthera.
Blaming Others Gives Us an Out
Despite many others who are hunting and killing lions, Palmer has been vilified and forced to put his dental practice on hold. He could face extradition back to Africa.
“We can shame him, which allows us to not look at any of the implications of our own actions,” said Richards.
He points out that many people turn a blind eye to consuming factory-farmed meat or throwing weed killer on their lawns.
“That is until someday a child is harmed by weed killer or a person looks into factory farming, and it gets publicized and then people start thinking about it and stop doing it,” he said. “We just need that one moment where the world opens their eyes to something.”
Ream said the anger toward Palmer plays into the moral panic, along with the fact that Palmer is wealthy.
“Somebody who has a lot of money is not a sympathetic character,” he said. “People think, ‘He has a lot of money and he can do whatever he wants with it and this is what he chooses.’”
A Case of Misdirected Compassion?
Of all of the tragic happenings in the world — sex trafficking, poverty, religious prosecution, just to name a few — Cecil the Lion is center stage.
“Something I’m seeing on the Internet is the outrage about Cecil, as though he’s some sort of distraction from our real problems,” said Ream.
“My response to that is…people don’t put in effort on the basis of having been told what they should care about,” he said. “It’s probably more profitable to reinforce caring in general than to try to shut people down for caring about one thing in favor of another thing. It wouldn’t be all that constructive to try to redirect people’s moral panic thinking anyway, because moral panics are pretty useless all by themselves.”