(First printed in the NEW YORK DAILY NEWS, Friday, March 9, 2018, 12:16 PM)
It’s been three years since the world erupted in outrage when Cecil the lion was selfishly and ineptly hunted down by Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer. The callous killing of Cecil threw a harsh spotlight on the slaughtering of animals for their body parts — “trophies” — so they can be stuffed and hung up on walls in macabre tableaux mounted by insecure men. (Yes, it’s almost exclusively men who participate in this so-called sport.) It’s time for our government to stop being complicit in this indefensible horror.
Earlier this week, the Trump administration announced that the import of body parts of African elephants shot for sport could be allowed on a case-by-case basis. This news came only a few months after the President spoke out against the practice and put the decision on hold. Back in November, President Trump tweeted, “Big-game trophy decision will be announced next week but will be very hard pressed to change my mind that this horror show in any way helps conservation of Elephants or any other animal.”
He was right then and if he meant it, he needs to direct his agency, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), to do its job and protect wildlife, not trophy hunters.
Importing elephant “trophies” is currently illegal unless a government agency allows an exception to the law that is supposed to protect endangered species, and there is no legitimate basis for allowing the body parts of imperiled animals to be imported into our country.
New reports detail Cecil’s last hours. According to the forthcoming book “Lion Hearted: The Life and Death of Cecil & the Future of Africa’s Iconic Cats,” By biologist Andrew Loveridge, after deliberately luring him outside the confines of a national park in order to skirt regulations, Palmer shot Cecil with his first steel arrow but missed his vital organs and major arteries. The majestic lion suffered for 10 to 12 excruciatingly painful hours before finally being “dispatched” with a second arrow from a compound bow.
Public condemnation of trophy hunting remains strong. It’s a cowardly pastime that is all about the perverse need to nab and slaughter the biggest and the “best.” It’s about gleefully posing for twisted selfies with lifeless bodies. It’s about bragging rights, as if blasting a complacent animal with high-powered weaponry were some sort of achievement.
We must ask ourselves, what is the psychology of someone who spends tens of thousands of dollars to travel to another country just to kill? When their motive is the thrill of the kill and they have a complete disregard for another’s life and take perverted pleasure in displaying heads of animals minding their own business, this indicates to the rest of us a very deeply disturbed psyche.
Trying to spin these kills as “conservation” is absurd. The animals are supposed to be protected by international treaty and the federal Endangered Species Act. Killing them or importing their body parts is strictly prohibited. There is one exception — when doing so would help “enhance the propagation or survival of the affected species.”
As the Supreme Court recognized, this exception is meant to apply under “extremely narrow circumstances.” And yet, through an outrageous pay-to-play policy, the FWS has let the exception become the rule.
Pressured by groups like Safari Club International and the National Rifle Association, the FWS now issues dozens of permits every year authorizing trophy imports. Instead of limiting permits to those cases that truly help species, as the law requires, the agency hands them out like candy to just about anyone claiming to make a donation toward conservation.
Never mind that the donations are nothing but collateral to the cruel hunting, are often paltry, and go to countries where there is no assurance that they will actually be used for conservation. Never mind that FWS often doesn’t even follow up to make sure that the promised donations are even made, let alone that they end up where they were supposed to. Never mind that killing elephants or lions — members of complex social groups — directly undermines conservation while also destroying families.
As ethicist Marc Bekoff says, “It’s time to put away the guns . . . and figure out how to live in peaceful coexistence with the fascinating animals with whom we’re supposed to share our most magnificent planet.”
The FWS would do well to take that message to heart, charged as it is by Congress with protecting these animals.
Winders is the PETA Foundation’s vice president and deputy general counsel for captive animal law enforcement and a visiting scholar at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University.