By Gloria Mann
This is a post about grief. It is about a singular grief, but all our griefs are one grief.
Anyone who is in any way connected to news or social media has by now heard of the death of Cecil the lion at the hands of an American dentist and part-time trophy hunter. Like me, you may not have even heard of Cecil’s existence until his death, but he was in fact one of the most famous lions in the world today. Dwelling on a protected endangered animal reserve in Zimbabwe, the Hwange National Park, this magnificent beast had become so popular a tourist attraction that his image had become the icon of tourism and environmental conservation for his country. People from around the world flocked to the Park to see Cecil freely roaming in his native land, or lording it over his “pride” (family) of mates and cubs.
Unfortunately, Cecil’s protected status did not protect him from human greed and ego. Once known as the breadbasket of Africa, Zimbabwe has now for years been one of the most desperately poor countries in the entire continent, and desperate people will do anything to obtain cash. Zimbabwe and many other places in Africa have found enormous profits in catering to foreign Big Game trophy hunters. Tours and guides will gladly help the wealthy foreigner stalk, kill and skin the Big Game animal of their choice, packing the head, tusks or skin off to grace the hunter’s office or den room. Since hunting free-roaming wild animals does not always guarantee a kill, breeding lions or other animals in captivity has become a big business.
There are now three times as many lions held in captivity as live wild. Many breeders sell their stock to be shot dead by wealthy trophy-hunters from Europe and North America, or to be slaughtered for use in traditional Asian medicine. The easy killing of animals in fenced areas is called “canned hunting”, because it is so non-spontaneous. A full grown, captive bred lion is taken from its pen to an enclosed area where it is shot dead by someone waiting with a rifle, hand-gun or even a crossbow, standing safely on the back of a truck. Even worse, this factory-farming of lions has not protected wild lions but instead created a larger market for hunting ALL lions. Wild populations of lions have declined by more than 80% in the past 20 years, mainly due to loss of habitat and hunting. There are a number of preserves or national parks that attempt to protect this dwindling species, but poaching for profit is a constant threat. That is what happened to Cecil.
As has been widely reported, Cecil was lured off his unfenced preserve by unscrupulous hunting guides, drawing him to a place where it was “legal” to kill him, and where Walter Palmer, a Minnesota dentist, was lying in wait. Palmer, an avid “sport hunter,” shot Cecil with an arrow, but failed to kill him. Palmer and his guides then tracked the wounded, bleeding lion for the next 40 hours, finally killing him with a rifle. His body was then beheaded and skinned to provide a trophy for Palmer back home in America. Cecil was wearing a tracking collar and his killers must have known that he was a protected lion when they came upon it. Following a tip, Park rangers discovered Cecil’s body and his death was then announced.
Following the announcement, there has been a flood of outrage and grief around the world. Celebrities spoke up and countless people were deeply moved. The object of vehement criticism, Walter Palmer had to shutter his thriving dentistry business and is currently fighting extradition back to Zimbabwe to face charges along with his guides. The attention generated by the tragedy has cast a light upon the plight of lions and all wild life in a world increasingly being decimated by an ever-expanding human society. It has also raised awareness of the continuing growth of the trophy hunting industry, a controversial practice increasingly popular with wealthy women also. Trophy hunting seems to exemplify the worst characteristics of the narcissistic human ego. How else to describe people who look at what is noble, wild and endangered, and then see an opportunity for a personal trophy or status symbol? There is something very wrong, very wounded in the psyches of such people.
These are the facts as known at the moment, but it is also a fact that hundreds of thousands of people are experiencing an enormous, continuing grief triggered by the story of Cecil. Cecil’s death was announced weeks ago, but still I am finding tears welling up, and deep sobs choking me, at odd times throughout each day. The many emails and messages that I receive tell me that I am not alone in this feeling. But what can one person do with such grief? Is it wrong to feel this way? Where does all this pain and sorrow come from, where does it go?
After many years of looking both within myself and outside at the world, I trust what so many wise scientists and spiritual teachers have been telling us; that life itself is in danger from an out of control humanity. There are so many areas in which this is true, from pollution to resource depletion to climate change to species loss. All these areas are inextricably interconnected, but perhaps none carry the weight of pain that the loss of our wild animals does. We are now living in the midst of – and are responsible for- the Sixth Great Extinction of the majority of species alive on earth, an extinction to rival the great ones of a our geological past such as the end of the dinosaurs. This is a legitimate cause for great grief, especially since animals remind many of us of what life should be, and of an innocence that we each once possessed.
I believe that this is the real well of grief that Cecil has opened for many of us; the grief not only of the tragic end of this beautiful, noble animal, but also a prolonged grief of what is taking place every day and all around us. When we are struck by the impact of Cecil’s death, when we look into his great dark eyes, a door opens into things greater than we feel we can bear. For the sensitive among us, it is like Palmer’s arrow stabbed into our own hearts just as it did Cecil’s. Yes, we are all Cecil.
I know that not everyone feels this way. There are people who gleefully troll those sharing this grief online, and just as many who endorse the sport hunting industries. For these people, killing innocent creatures for pleasure is one of their god-given rights. Such people are deeply damaged. (I am not criticizing those who hunt for needed food, though their way of life is just as much in danger as the animals that they hunt.)
I want to respond to this grief, not by attacking the deranged humans who love killing, but by teaching them to embrace and protect life. I understand and agree that we must take concrete action – whether that means education or protest or financial support – but activism is not enough in itself. We also need a change in consciousness. We cannot save our rapidly eroding biosphere, including ourselves who live in it, without changing our minds. I want to overcome not the symptom of our collective grief but the source of it, the damaged human spirit.
The only way to respond to division, our spiritual teachers tell us, is by returning to an understanding of Oneness. Oneness dissolves our pain and helps us embrace the parts that seem divided. Our sense of separateness is a profound illusion, and it’s killing us all. “Me against Them,” “More for Me,” “Less for Them,” “What use are they for Me?” and so on; these are the demonic voices in our heads that are now leading us all into global catastrophe.
Hope is the antidote to grief, and I do believe that there is yet hope. Things have gotten so bad worldwide that now more people than ever understand that we are not separate. All of us can transform our grief over Cecil’s death, and the uncountable, senesless deaths that it represents, by embracing our Oneness and finding hope. I hope that we all do take action over the many interconnected crises we face, but I pray that we do it with an understanding that we are all one. Yes, “we are Cecil,” but we are also Walter Palmer.
Looking for poems or prayers expressing this understanding, I came across the work of Vietnamese Zen master and international peace worker, Thich Nhat Hanh. One of his many poems speaks to the fact that we are each of us one with – and responsible for – everything that is taking place on earth right now. We are at once the innocent and the criminal, and we are both Cecil and his killer. Until we accept this oneness we will never be able to reign in our worst elements and save what remains of wild nature, or ourselves.
Below is an excerpt from the poem:
Please call me by my true names……
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up
and the door of my heart
could be left open,
from “Please Call Me By My True Names,” Thich Nhat Hanh