Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Floridians grapple with disconnect between trophy hunters and the rest of us

In this undated photo provided by the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, Cecil the lion rests in Hwange National Park, in Hwange, Zimbabwe.
In this undated photo provided by the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, Cecil the lion rests in Hwange National Park, in Hwange, Zimbabwe. AP

Maybe if Florida’s bears had names . . .

Walter Palmer could certainly attest to the tribulations facing trophy hunters who kill wild animals adorned with human names.

The Minnesota dentist, with the help of some underhanded tactics, killed a famous lion called Cecil in Zimbabwe earlier this month and now finds himself deluged with worldwide infamy. Protestors have piled stuffed animals at his office door. Online mischief-makers have given him and his dental practice the mean treatment on Yelp and Facebook. Celebrities have set Twitter afire with their disgust.

An emotional Jimmy Kimmel talked about this “disgusting tragedy” on his late night television program Tuesday and said, “The big question is: Why are you shooting a lion in the first place? I mean, I'm honestly curious to know why a human being would feel compelled to do that,” he asked. “How is that fun?”

It was a variation of the question that has roiled Floridians these last few months, as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission attempted to convince a skeptical public why Florida should resume state-sanctioned black bear hunts.

The public in general — in a state with just 242,000 hunters (compared to 3.1 million anglers) — opposed the notion. In January, a statewide poll conducted by the Remington Research Group of 1,664 Florida voters found 61 percent opposed while only 25 percent favored a resumption of bear hunts.

Floridians signed petitions opposing the hunt for an animal that just three years ago had been listed as a threatened species. Public comments posted on the FWC website were overwhelmingly (78 percent) against bear hunts. Last month, opponents, one of them in a bear outfit, trooped to the microphone to urge the commission to at least wait until their staffers had completed a bear population study before letting the hunters loose. (The last study, conducted 13 years ago, estimated that the state’s black bear population was just 3,000.)

But the commission, all appointees of Gov. Rick Scott, himself a hunter, shrugged off these wimpy urban sensibilities and voted 5-1 to allow a one-week hunt this October, the first in Florida since 1994. It was no surprise. In April, according to the Tampa Bay Times, wildlife commission chairman Richard Corbett (a Tampa mall developer) said that the commission ignored the public opposition because “those people don't know what they're talking about.

“Most of those people have never been in the woods. They think we're talking about teddy bears: ‘Oh Lord, don't hurt my little teddy bear!’ Well, these bears are dangerous.”

Corbett’s words read like an obscenity to someone like me. But I’m sure that the rural Floridians, who wield such disproportionate power in this state, embrace such sentiments. There’s some great disconnect between folks like me who harbor a visceral disgust with trophy hunting, and the hunters, who cherish the opportunity to go after big game animals.

Not that bear hunters in Florida and lion hunters in Africa don’t proffer logical arguments about culling certain animal populations for their own good. Though when the Tampa Bay Times’ Craig Pittman sought out explanations from Corbett and FWC Director Nick Wiley, Corbett talked about protecting the public from bears wandering into neighborhoods while Wiley insisted otherwise. “We have never proposed bear hunting as a solution to conflicts,” Wiley said, talking about a science-based need to reduce the overall bear population in Florida.

The real rationale, of course, is that hunters want to hunt. And the FWC works for them, not us citified milksops with our teddy bear sentimentality.

Big game hunters who trek to Africa to kill endangered species similarly claim that they’re really conservationists. Walter Palmer belongs to the Safari Club International, which styles itself as a conservation champion. According to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the club lists some 43 kills by the dentist, including moose, deer, buffalo, a polar bear and a mountain lion. Photos show Palmer posing with a slain rhino, elephant and another lion. He was one bloody conservationist.

The dentist claimed through a PR firm that he didn’t realize that the local guides he hired were up to anything illegal when they used a dead animal to lure Cecil out of Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park on July 1.

Palmer, reportedly hunting at night with a spotlight (a tactic considered unsportsmanlike among hunters I knew back in Mississippi and West Virginia), reportedly shot the lion with an arrow from his hunting bow but only wounded the creature. He and his guides hunted Cecil for hours before finally killing it, skinning the lion and removing its head for a trophy. Unhappily for Palmer, Cecil had been wearing a GPS collar monitored by Oxford University biologists, which led wildlife authorities to the headless remains.

Some might find Palmer’s protestations of innocence lacking in credibility. The Star-Tribune reported that in 2008, he pleaded guilty in federal court to misleading a federal agent about killing a black bear in a prohibited area. The felony conviction got him a year’s probation and a $3,000 fine. Not much of a penalty for a guy rich enough to pay $54,000 for the opportunity to kill Cecil, the most famous lion in Zimbabwe.

But there was his mistake: killing a lion with a name in the age of Twitter. If the most loathed trophy hunter on the planet had waited, instead, until October, he could have come to Florida and purchased a bear hunting license for a piddling $300 (just $100 for Florida residents) and stalked another threatened species without risking a world-wide shaming.

Floridians in general may be appalled but as far as the FWC’s concerned, Florida’s anonymous, no-name bears are just there for the killing.