Cecil the Lion: Can Health Care Professionals Ethically Be Sport Hunters


Craig Klugman

Publish date

Tag(s): Legacy post
Topic(s): Animal Ethics Environmental Ethics

by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.

In James Patterson’s book (and now TV miniseries) Zoo, the animals have acquired an intelligence that removes their fear of humans. More specifically, the animals attack humans, driven by radio waves from technology. In character’s belief, the animals are banding together to take care of the greatest threat to their existence—us. With that perspective, I examine the social media uproar over a dentist killing Cecil the Lion.

The social media buzz started not because a man hunted a lion, but because he happened to shoot a beloved lion. Cecil was a 13-year-old lion who lived in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. He was a well-known tourist attraction, wore a tracking collar and was part of an Oxford University study. There are debates over whether the hunt was legal. What is legal and what is ethical are two different things. This blog is about the latter.

Cecil’s killing is buzzworthy, but he is only one of 244 lions that will be hunted this year—that’s the average number of lions hunted for trophy each year. We might not have heard of lion trophy hunting if a celebrity animal had not been shot. The other 243 did not cause a ripple in the social media universe.

Walter James Palmer is a dentist from Minnesota. He reportedly paid $50,000 to hunt a lion with a crossbow. Most hunts make about $60,000 to $120,000 with the costs of hunting license, visit, travel, and preparation of the carcass for display. Lion hunting is legal in 27-32% of the animal’s current territory and many African nations that had limits on hunting have removed them. The lion population has plunged by 82% in the last 100 years with estimates of 23,000 to 39,000 of the animals remaining.

Palmer has received death threats, he does not deserve that. No one deserves that. However, it is worth examining the ethics of hunting for trophy and for a health professional to engage in such practices. As a dentist, Palmer is subject to the American Dental Association Principles of Ethics and Code of Professional Conduct. One interesting component of this particular code, is that it does not distinguish between personal and professional actions. In fact, the preamble talks about the character a person must have in order to be a dentist:

“The Association believes that dentists should possess not only knowledge, skill and technical competence but also those traits of character that foster adherence to ethical principles. Qualities of honesty, kindness, integrity, fairness and charity are part of the ethical education of a dentist and practice of dentistry and help to define the true professional. As such, each dentist should share in providing advocacy to and care of the underserved. It is assured that the dentist meet this goal, subject to individual circumstances.“

“Those traits of character” suggest that this is part of the person, not only of the professional persona. One can’t go home and be of bad character and still be a good dentist, according to the above statement. Also consider that among the principles are nonmaleficence, beneficence, and justice. Killing an animal to mount its head would seem to cause (a) harm to the animal, (b) provide no benefit to the animal, and (c) violates rules of fairness and equity. In regards to (a), consider that after Palmer shot the lion with his bow, the wounded lion wandered for 40 hours before the hunters located him and were able to deliver a final blow. As for (c), the lion was lured with the use of bait to the killing grounds, a practice that the Safari Operators Association of Zimbabwe has criticized as violating hunting ethics.

Clearly this preamble was written for human patients. But can a person be kind, fair, and charitable when he or she has hunted a trophy animal? As former U.S. House Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut said in 2006 “The way a society treats its animals, particularly horses, speaks to the core values and morals of its citizens.”

This is not to say that it is always wrong to hunt: Sometimes animals are hunted for food and hunts might be part of traditional cultural traditions. I also recognized that sometimes culling needs to happen to protect the health of the population or because the animal poses a threat to other life. But the concept of trophy hunting is particularly problematic—killing the animal not because poverty has led you to needing the food, or for management of the population—because it is about skinning an animal to have a rug for your floor or a stuffed head to mount over the fireplace. That does not honor the animal, in fact, it views the animal only as an instrumental good, denying the creature’s inherent value to exist.

Nor am I getting into arguing in this blog that all sport hunting is bad. What I am saying is that being a health care provider, charged with “honest, kindness, integrity, fairness, and charity” is irreconcilable with hunting an animal for a trophy. Given the bad publicity and the demonstrations of stuffed lions left at his office door, Palmer has [temporarily?] closed his dental office, referring his patients to other dentists.

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