The tempest over the killing of Cecil the lion by a Minnesota big-game hunter is playing out around the world, with court proceedings against two men and the hunter saying his dental practice has been brought to a halt.
MINNEAPOLIS — Dr. Walter Palmer’s neatly groomed property near Minneapolis, adjacent to a preschool, has turned from a dentist’s office to a memorial to the killed lion Cecil, with red roses and more than a dozen stuffed animals laid outside the locked front door.
The turmoil surrounding the killing of the beloved lion in Zimbabwe by Palmer, a Minnesota big-game hunter, played out around the world Wednesday, with court proceedings against two men, U.S. authorities offering investigatory assistance and the hunter saying that anger toward him has brought his dental practice to a halt.
Palmer, 55, of Eden Prairie, has acknowledged that he shot Cecil with a bow and arrow July 1 during the hunt that he paid more than $50,000 to arrange. Cecil was living in the Hwange National Park, where it had protected status and was collared as part of a long-term study. The animal became a favorite among tourists and a point of pride for the southern African nation.
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But in the hours after Palmer said he had killed the lion under the impression that the hunt was legal and undertaken with the proper permits, he went from a dentist and longtime hunting enthusiast to the villain at the center of a virtual firestorm over the ethics of big-game trophy hunting.
He apologized in a statement: “I deeply regret that my pursuit of an activity I love and practice responsibly and legally resulted in the taking of this lion.”
Trophy hunting, undertaken by wealthy hunters who pay tens of thousands of dollars for licenses to kill protected animals for trophies and sport, has long been a subject of global debate. Hunting advocates and some conservationists argue that, if done responsibly, the selling of expensive licenses to big-game hunters can help pay for efforts to protect endangered species.
A 2009 study by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature estimated that trophy hunters kill around 600 lions a year.
Last October, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to list the African lion as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, and a move that would also establish guidelines for permitting the importing of lion trophies. That proposal is under review.
Cecil had been closely studied by researchers at the University of Oxford since 2008 as part of efforts to track the decline in Africa’s lion population and to better understand the threats the animals face.
The university’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit said in a statement that Cecil’s adult “brothers” and cubs would now most likely be killed by other male lions seeking dominance in the community.
When it was reported that a Texas man paid $350,000 to hunt and kill a black rhinoceros in Namibia this year, the debate remained among activists. But the death of Cecil, a 13-year-old lion who wandered out of his sanctuary in a national park this month, struck a chord with social-media users.
As more details around the killing emerged, activists used search engines to find Palmer’s contact information and social media to share information about his business and his family, stirring a fever pitch of anger strong enough to effectively dismantle his digital life.
Angry people sent a surge of traffic to Palmer’s website, which was taken offline. Vitriolic reviews flooded his Yelp page — “Murderer,” one reviewer wrote. A Facebook page titled “Shame Lion Killer Dr. Palmer and River Bluff Dental” drew thousands of users. Professional profiles of Palmer were also scrubbed from websites.
Even a local crisis-management expert got pulled into the fray. The specialist, Jon Austin, who operates a Minneapolis-based communications firm, said he had been asked only to circulate Palmer’s initial statement. On Wednesday, Austin ended his involvement with the matter but not before his own Yelp page was flooded by angry commenters.
Federal authorities in the United States said Wednesday they are poised to assist officials in Zimbabwe in their investigation of Palmer and the two men who were with him when Cecil was shot with a bow and arrow and then finished off two days later with a gunshot.
Laury Marshall Parramore, spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said her agency is deeply concerned about the killing of Cecil. “We are currently gathering facts about the issue and will assist Zimbabwe officials in whatever manner requested. It is up to all of us — not just the people of Africa — to ensure that healthy, wild populations of animals continue to roam the savanna for generations to come.”
The U.S. Justice Department said in a statement that it’s also “aware of the situation and … looking into the facts.”
Police in Bloomington, Minn., are ramping up patrols around Palmer’s office, where artist Mark Balma leaned a 6- by 6-foot blank canvas against his vehicle and is painting a portrait of Cecil. Balma, who splits his time between California and Italy, is visiting friends in the area and said he felt the need “to do something about this and express it. I paint, so I painted it out.”
A Bloomington mother brought her two small children to the protest. One of them, 3-year-old Beckett Madison, wore a lion’s costume and a sign that read, “Protect Me, Don’t Hunt Me.”
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton characterized Cecil’s death as “just horrible. … It’s an iconic lion. To lure the animal out of the preserve, I don’t understand how anyone thinks that’s sport.”
Movie and television celebrities joined the chorus of global condemnation and took out after Palmer, largely on Twitter, among them British comedian and actor Ricky Gervais, TV personality Sharon Osbourne and movie actress Olivia Wilde.
Late-night TV talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel used more than four minutes of his opening monologue Tuesday night on ABC for a largely punchline-free scolding. Palmer needs to “stop saying you took the animal,” Kimmel said. “You take aspirin. You killed the lion; you didn’t take it.”
Palmer wrote in a notice to his patients that his practice is closed for the time being, saying his business has been disrupted by the “substantial number of calls and comments from people who are angered by this situation and by the practice of hunting in general.”
He added that he hopes to “resume normal operations as soon as possible.” In the meantime, Palmer continued, referrals to other dentists are being arranged.
Along with repeating his statement from Tuesday, the dentist also told his clients, “I don’t often talk about hunting with my patients because it can be a divisive and emotionally charged topic. I understand and respect that not everyone shares the same views on hunting.”
In Zimbabwe, two men implicated in the killing of Cecil were in court Wednesday in Hwange, about 435 miles west of the capital, Harare. Palmer, who was in the Twin Cities as of Tuesday evening, was being sought on poaching charges, according to Zimbabwe officials.
In a statement on Tuesday, Palmer said that he had not been contacted by the authorities, but that he was willing to cooperate with their requests.
“I had no idea that the lion I took was a known, local favorite, was collared and part of a study, until the end of the hunt,” Palmer said. “I relied on the expertise of my local professional guides to ensure a legal hunt.”
Theo Bronkhorst, a professional guide with Bushman Safaris, was charged with “failing to supervise, control and take reasonable steps to prevent an unlawful hunt.” Court documents said he was supervising while Palmer shot the animal.
Bronkhorst is suspected of luring the lion to a farm, where it was shot. He pleaded not guilty and was freed in lieu of $1,000 bail. If convicted, Bronkhorst faces up to 15 years in prison.
Farmer Honest Trymore Ndlovu has yet to be charged. Officials say Ndlovu was expected to first testify for the state and then be charged.
During a nighttime pursuit, the hunters tied a dead animal to their car to lure the lion out of the national park, said Johnny Rodrigues, chairman of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force. Palmer shot the lion with a bow and arrow, injuring it. The wounded lion was found later and killed with a gun, Rodrigues said. The 13-year-old lion, easily spotted by his dominantly black mane, was skinned and beheaded.
Cecil’s carcass was discovered days later by trackers, according to a statement from the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority and the Safari Operators Association of Zimbabwe. Emmanuel Fundira, president of Safari Operators Association, said “Cecil’s trophy (head) has since been recovered and will be brought to court as an exhibit.”
Palmer has been hunting big game for many years. His kills are listed by Safari Club International, a big-game hunting group that claims 55,000 members worldwide. The club’s detailed record book lists 43 kills by Palmer, all by bow and arrow. His list includes moose, deer, buffalo, a polar bear and a mountain lion. A photo in the record book shows him with an African elephant he shot in Zimbabwe in 2013.
According to U.S. court records, Palmer pleaded guilty in 2008 to making false statements to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about a black bear he fatally shot in western Wisconsin.
Palmer had a permit to hunt but shot the animal outside the authorized zone in 2006, then tried to pass it off as being killed elsewhere, according to court documents. He was given one year probation and fined nearly $3,000.