Burning Bright

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Seventeen years ago almost to the day, two sister kittens arrived in our flat. One was all black, sphinx-like, sleepy and docile. The other, brindled brown, was all voice, nerves and spirit. Soon after arriving she discovered my eyes, and began almost to climb into them. This one was all cat, a real hunter, hungry all the time. I thought of Blake’s ‘Tyger’, that she must have been made by another kind of god than the maker of humans. But she was also like my baby. I’d never felt quite so bonded with a cat before, and it was hardly my doing.

Yesterday, I found her behind the apple tree as stiff and flat as an open hardback book, but quite unreadable. A shiny bluebottle crawled out of her mouth. Her eyes were staring open. I touched her fur and it felt both alive and yet unpliable. It’s the first time I’ve ever dug a grave.

Yesterday, it was International Tiger Day, reminding us that we have lost 97% of tigers in 100 years. At the rate of loss, all wild tigers could be extinct within 5 years. I’ve never fallen in love with a particular tiger, like I did with my own little cat, but I can imagine it’s possible. What I do love is tigers generally, the fact that some kinds of tiger continue to exist. But it’s a love mixed with fear that because of palm oil consumption, and many other factors, all human, we will soon lose these charismatic animals from our world.

Yesterday, the media, social and traditional, went wild about the killing of Cecil the lion by Walter the dentist from Minneapolis. It sounds like one of those old cautionary tales. Cecil has gone viral compared to all the other animal killings because he was a famous tourist attraction to Zimbabwe. And then on the back of this crazy trending has been a backlash, people saying ‘how can you care about a lion when human lives are being taken?’ One backlash is pointing at the hypocrisy of consuming animal products while getting upset about a lion. Another of the main comparisons is the attention given to Cecil compared to Sandra Bland.

This comparison upsets me, not because I’m not upset by aggressions against innocent people of colour by violent men taking advantage of their uniform (which makes me sick), but because the comparison is pointless and divisive. The killing of black Americans, the killing of indigenous people everywhere, the killing of charismatic endangered species and the destruction of habitats for fast profit, are all part of a complex and frightening system that is fast diminishing our potential for global security and equanimity. There are complex but direct links between human-animal conflict, removing keystone species from ecosystems, the exploitation of those places, the forced migration and exploitation of people, and human-human conflict.

Cecil was the lynchpin, alpha male in his group, which is one reason why his individual death matters. It will cause a lot of disturbance, fighting and dispersal in his group, making all the others more vulnerable. Not just Cecil, but lions in general are important. Lions are not as endangered as tigers, but they are threatened by rapid habitat loss, by loss of prey to the bushmeat trade, and by hunting by humans. Large charismatic species get more attention than smaller creatures such as insects, which may also be endangered, but they are often important because of their role in maintaining balance and soil fertility in an ecosystem and because they are more vulnerable to trophy hunting.

Trophy hunting epitomises the mindset of humans dominant over other species and over other people, which underlies the endemic violence in our world. It’s the mindset that fails to report on how non-human species are coping in forest fires or oil spills. It’s the mindset that cannot grasp why non-human species should have any legal advocacy (hear Canon Angela Tilby on Thought for the Day). It’s the mindset that assumes people migrate only to seek jobs and education, not because their people may also have lost common land and a proximal source of food. It’s the mindset that cannot understand why we can learn anything from indigenous people about how we can live with other species in abundance.

P.S. I wrote this yesterday, so when the text says yesterday, that was the day before I wrote it.

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