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2 August 2015

I'm sorry to sound hard-hearted, but we are definitely not Cecil, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

There has been a ludicrous outbreak of sentimentality over the Zimbabwean lion.

In this undated photo provided by the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit,
Cecil the lion rests in Hwange National Park, in Hwange, Zimbabwe.
(Andy Loveridge/Wildlife Conservation Research Unit via AP)

'Together let's keep the spirit of Cecil alive," tweets one of the many self-appointed Chief Mourners over the hashtag #cecilthelion.

Look, guys, I'm as soft-hearted about animals as the next person, and have had for many years a standing order for Compassion in World Farming to prove it, but I am, if you'll forgive the expression, foxed by this.

What exactly is the "spirit of Cecil", who, as far as I know, behaved like any other successful lion, which was essentially to live the life of a bit of an idle scrounger? That is, he spent about 20 hours a day being a layabout and the rest of the time sauntering around his territory reminding everyone that he was the top banana or scoffing the best bits of whatever dead animal the lionesses had brought home to feed the family.

Cecil was handsome and had clearly been good at seeing off the competition over the years, so he had six lionesses and 12 cubs in his two prides, along with some other lion who for traditional reasons I haven't quite grasped was allowed to dally with whatever female Cecil didn't fancy, as long as he didn't annoy the old man.

Presumably, Cecil wasn't as much of a stud as he used to be. He was old and would have been lucky to see his 14th birthday.

But he had a name, which was enough to make him a Celebrity Lion for the tourists visiting Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park and the grieving millions around the world since his death. He was apparently a modern caring dad, for the actress Mia Farrow, who knows about these things because she is a sensitive soul who tweets pictures of the moon and of squirrels in distress, joined in the Twitter storm to tell us that he was "the gentle protector of six cubs". (I'm only surprised she didn't seize the opportunity to compare him favourably to her one-time lover Woody Allen, whom she hunts relentlessly with accusations of child abuse and, most recently, whom she alleged had been cuckolded by the late Frank Sinatra.) She has also retweeted other outpourings of grief like "Why killing a lion is the most cowardly thing you can do". No, it bloody isn't, Ms Farrow. You may not like hunting, but it is not an activity to which cowards are attracted. Don't over-egg the moral pudding.

Farrow's indignation extended to tweeting the address of Minneapolis dentist Walter Palmer, Cecil's killer, encouraging a pride of vengeful half-wits to leave stuffed animals, red roses and signs like "Rot in hell" and "We are Cecil" outside his front door. His practice is closed and he has left for a secret address, thus proving that whatever else, this hunter isn't foolhardy.

There are plenty of people around who would be capable of showing their love for animals by killing a human. After all, a spokesloony for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) has told the world Palmer should hang. That's probably par for course with Peta.

The people of Zimbabwe have revealed themselves as far less tender-hearted than their Western counterparts. "What lion?" asked the acting information minister Prisca Mupfumira when asked for a comment on the tragedy. "Why are the Americans more concerned than us?" asked a local interviewed by Reuters. "We never hear them speak out when villagers are killed by lions and elephants in Hwange." But then ordinary Zimbabweans, unless they are followers of the tyrannical President Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party, being mostly unemployed, hungry and frightened of capricious and brutal authority figures, are focused on survival rather than on First-World problems like animal rights. If they knew the facts, they would be delighted that Palmer had paid more than €45,000 for a big-game safari in the park.

Cecil was a special case because the University of Oxford's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit had fitted him with a GPS collar as part of a conservation project to track lions in the wild. They'll be sorry to lose Cecil, but he wasn't going to be around for long and his death has so far brought them more than €325,000 in donations from the outraged, which will keep their project going for another 18 months. The next excitement will be finding out if Cecil's successor follows tradition and - like Herod - massacres every cub under two years old, for lions are less cuddly than Ms Farrow might hope.

I was an out-and-out abolitionist where hunting was concerned when I was young, but I read and learned about it and realised that, properly controlled, it is both necessary and valuable to the control of pests and to conservation. Tony Blair, who abolished fox-hunting to please his urban class-warriors admitted in his memoirs that he had been ill-informed and wrong. Sensible hunters care about the welfare of the species they hunt: Palmer, it is reported, paid €64,900 at an auction to help preserve an elk habitation.

I regret the manner of Cecil's death, for after being shot with a bow and arrow it was two days before Palmer caught up with him to finish him off with a rifle.

Like many others, I did not like the photograph of him grinning over Cecil's corpse. Nor would I wish my dentist to adorn his surgery with his animal trophies. But he is a hunter, and so - when he could be bothered - was Cecil, who was headed for death from a nasty disease or at the claws and teeth of a leadership contender. Nature is as unpleasant as it is beautiful, and our sentimentality insults it.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards