Here’s a hypothetical question, just a fun query for your lunch break. You’re given a gun and put in a room with another person and a dog. You have to shoot one, which do you choose? What about if instead of a dog it was a cow? I mean we eat cows anyway, right? How about if it was a wasp? They can sting you, hurt you, maybe even kill you if you’re unlucky enough to be allergic. That, said both dogs and cows have also been known to kill people.
How about if it was a lion?
For what it’s worth I’ve never shot at an inanimate object, never mind a living being but I know what my answer would be. Between the human and the animal, I’d shoot the animal every time.
The reason for this admittedly unappealing and highly unlikely hypothetical is because of a strange disparity that seems to exist in people’s reactions to news stories about animals and humans.
Let’s get this clear from the outset, animal cruelty is wrong. Battery hens aren’t worth the savings on your bargain bucket, pets shouldn’t be abused and maltreated and, despite Zimbabwe deciding this week not to take any action against the dentist in question, hunting big game, no matter how legit you believe your guides to be, is not the relaxing holiday activity you deserve after months of staring at people’s tonsils.
But it is weird to see how these sorts of stories play out in the media and to a greater extent in the media’s deadbeat trust-fund child, social media. The shooting of Cecil the lion and the aftermath which rumbled on for weeks, is a decent example of this. The details of the story are almost comically idiotic. The guides, charged with finding a lion for a wealthy American tourist to shoot decide to borrow a lion which was by all accounts already semi-famous in Zimbabwe because of his distinctive black mane. A lion, incidentally, that was tagged as the subject of a research programme being undertaken by Oxford University. And somehow they expected to get away with this without anyone noticing. The hunter in question, a Minnesotan dentist called Walter Palmer, decided that the noblest and most dignified way to hunt this 190 kg animal was with a bow and arrow, a method which unsurprisingly failed to kill the lion instantly, forcing it to stagger on for 40 hours until they finally caught up with it and finished it off. All of which deserves outrage both in Zimbabwe and around the world.
But what about the people of Zimbabwe? What about the journalists abducted and beaten, the political opponents murdered? They don’t get anywhere near the same number of column inches and although Mugabe’s willingness to resort to violence seems pretty conclusive, very few stories make the headlines.
Is it because Cecil had a name? Maybe, but people have names too, at least all the ones I’ve ever met do. Or have we simply become such a meme-driven society that we feel like nothing in this world is worth a moment of our attention anymore unless Ricky Martin is tweeting about it?
You can see this disconnect for yourselves. The next time some dickhead thinks it’s fine to stub his cigarettes out on a dog or to tie up a horse by the side of the motorway and drive off into the sunset, check your Facebook or Twitter feed. Actually you won’t need to bother checking because it will be there, first thing in the morning, thrust into your face as you try and get your shit together over a bowl of off-brand Shreddies. Someone will have reposted it, their own fury tacked on the end in block capitals. “THIS SICK BASTARD!” they’ll say, “WE SHOULD BRING BACK HANGING FOR THESE FUCKERS!!” And then wait. Wait until the next time a migrant boat sinks in the Mediterranean. Wait until hundreds of people whose desperation has driven them to risking life and limb perish in search of a better life. The response is likely to be more muted. At best you’ll probably be faced with nothing, at worst some recycled xenophobia suggesting they shouldn’t have been trying to come over here anyway.
Perhaps our social media output is just a reflection of the input we see from the quote-unquote mainstream media. If the Daily Mail ran headline after headline about swarms of lions attempting to make it here from Africa, increasing crime, decreasing house prices or costing the taxpayers millions in additional zookeeping fees, maybe we’d feel less sympathy for poor Cecil. If the Prime Minister referred instead to the pride of immigrants camped out in Calais, would that finally engender some empathy for our fellow man? In terms of positivity ‘a pride’ is definitely the best collective noun going. It’s not like they’re not trying – perhaps the reason they nicknamed the migrant camp ‘The Jungle’ was to catch some of that good will usually reserved for lions. (If any single incident is going to highlight this point, this bizarre story of migrants breaking into a lorry only to find it already occupied by a polar bear is it.)
This anthropomorphism and zoomorphism has crossed over now to the point where we care more about animal welfare and it’s time our feelings about human welfare caught up. Perhaps we’ve reached the stage where the best thing to do if you catch yourself struggling to feel a connection to people suffering just imagine them as lions, kind of like the stage version of The Lion King. Otherwise our Facebook feeds are going to get so frustrating that the next time we think about being in the room with an animal, a person and a gun, the most palatable option might just be to turn it on ourselves.