Cecil 'Hunt' Like Calling Prostitution a Date

Nick Jans / USA TODAY / August 9, 2015

We’ve already made the transition into a pay-per-kill experience.

Though we don’t have the whole story, one fact stands certain: The recent killing of Cecil,Zimbabwe’s celebrity lion, by a Minnesota dentist and his hired guides, has raised an unprecedented global outcry. Millions have expressed their outrage. However, a no-less strident minority of sport hunters, Detroit rock star Ted Nugent at the forefront, have staunchly defended Walter Palmer as a fellow hunter being unjustly reviled. Their mantra is that hunting is a natural act, one connecting us to an ancient heritage, and that any critics are, in Nugent’s words, “stupid” people who just don’t get it because they’ve lost touch with who we once were. 

Legal and ethical issues aside, Nugent and company do have a point about heritage — if they and Palmer are descendants of Mesopotamian kings or medieval aristocracy. Consider Palmer’s brand of hunting: spend large sums to gain exclusive access to exotic animals; be escorted by an entourage that does all the work, minimizes risk and all but guarantees success; slay aforementioned beasts in apparently manly fashion; and make public displays to celebrate those exploits. Such parallels are part of the archaeological and historic record, from ancient Babylonian friezes to Facebook.

As far as actual utility by those high rollers — eating, wearing skins, or fashioning necessary implements — well, not so much. Even if the nobles feasted on wild boar or the king wore a fur-trimmed cape, the point was symbol, not substance, a public display of power and dominion. Meanwhile, the common man was excluded from hunting anything larger than a hare, often on penalty of death.

What Palmer’s kingly style of hunting has to do with our hunter-gatherer roots escapes me. I’m not some urbanite who thinks meat magically appears in bloodless packages. I’ve lived in Alaska for most of my adult life, the first two decades in remote arctic Eskimo villages. As a young man, I found work with a big game guide catering to wealthy clients like Palmer, skinning and carrying out trophy skulls, hides and antlers. Meat was given away, or sometimes quietly left to rot.

Over the ensuing decades, I roamed the Brooks Range with Inupiaq subsistence hunters, the very sort of people Palmer and Nugent’s crowd claims to channel. But for my Eskimo companions, the object of the hunt was always fat meat or useful skins and sinews. The elders considered the animals we sought to be sentient beings that consciously gave or withheld themselves, rather than soulless brutes over which we exercised rightful dominance. There was no such thing as a trophy; antlers and skulls were usually left behind, and bragging frowned upon. Once, when I was speaking brashly about the quarry we sought, my traveling partner Clarence Wood scolded, “Quiet! Wolves are listening!”

Of course, living with Inupiat didn’t make me one; and I don’t subscribe to wrapping myself in borrowed cultural robes. My point isn’t self-righteous chest-thumping but to offer a glimpse into just how far from our Paleolithic past our own cultural notion of the hunt has drifted. As a glance at cable television or at the ads any hunting tabloid will confirm, we’ve already made the transition into a pay-per-kill experience, where you shell out several hundred bucks at some fenced game farm, drive to a blind overlooking a baited site or simply cruise around, and blast the deer or feral hog of your choice, with butchering part of the package. Beyond minimal marksmanship competence with bow or gun, few outdoor skills are required. Pay a few thousand more, and you can pop a zebra, kudu, or heck, even a lion. It’s just a scaled-down version of Palmer’s faux hunt, and many mistake it for the real thing, or at least consider it an acceptable substitute.

Yes, tens of thousands of Americans still practice hunting of the sort an Eskimo would recognize. This isn’t about them. It’s about Palmer’s version of the chase: a pathetic passion play that has as much in common with hunting as high-end prostitution has with a romantic relationship. Money buys the illusion of love and intimacy, but after that paid-for conquest, there’s only the emptiness of a glassy-eyed stare across the room.


Alaska writer Nick Jans' latest book, A Wolf Called Romeo, is available at nickjans.com. He is a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors.