An Open Letter to Dr. Walter Palmer, Dentist, Hunter

By Deanne Stillman

Dear Dr. Palmer:

Due to the news story that you’ve recently been involved in, I know a lot about you. Or at least enough to write you this letter. You probably don’t know anything about me, and I’d like to introduce myself. I’m a writer, teacher, American citizen, fan of baseball, heavy metal, blues, jazz and all that has rhythm and a beat and a tune that you can breathe and dance and sway to. I like German chocolate cake and espresso and roast duck and sometimes I take my espresso with amaretto. I also eat the beef of cattle and bison, but not very often; more generally, I go for kale but really my favorite thing is crepes, at any time of the day or night. I should mention as well that I like hiking and wide open space, especially if sand is involved, and every now and then, I try to surf, but mostly end up hanging twenty – and then falling off anyway.

I don’t think I’ve ever written to a dentist before, although I’ve sent Christmas cards and thank you notes. I want to let you know that I have no fear of those in your profession and I’ve liked all of my dentists. One in fact was so wonderful that I almost considered staying in the wrong town, even though that would have meant not seeing my best friends ever again or re-uniting with an old boyfriend. Over the years I’ve noticed that some of my dentists, and doctors as well, have photographs of wild animals on their walls; I recall one thoughtful and light-hearted dentist who even had such images on the ceiling, to offer patients a beautiful thing to look at as they lay prone in his chair, perhaps undergoing an uncomfortable procedure.

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Photo by Larry Lasker

As for the subject at hand, Cecil the Lion, I am not trying to be coy when I say that it must be rough to get busted – by millions of people on the internet, no less – for something that a lot of other people do all of the time all over the world on a regular basis. I refer specifically to hunting wildlife for sport, and more specifically, in your case, to the recent killing of Cecil in Zimbabwe. I know that you may engage in such activity in the name of conservation, along with the many others who pay large sums of money to hunt and kill wild animals in exotic and domestic locations, often at the behest of sponsors and guides who are part of a licensed network, though not always. In your case, many things have converged; we live in a time during which the world is mad as hell and isn’t gonna take it any more. Because of the internet, and depending on what “it” is at any given time, this anger increases exponentially, and the person who is the focus of whatever the world is mad about at any particular moment assumes association with that selfsame act. You are the person who now represents trophy killing everywhere.

There are so many things I want to ask you. When did you first come into contact with lions? When you were a little boy, did you see them at the circus atop their mounts and gaze in wonderment at their flowing manes and static power as their trainer kept them in place and then took a bow?   Did you see them at the zoo, behind bars, and if so what did you think? I would often accompany my mother, an artist, to our local wild animal dwelling. She liked to draw the animals, in particular the small capuchin monkeys on Monkey Island and after that, we would wander over to the big cat house. I remember watching the lions pacing, pacing, pacing inside their cage. There was a sign that said they were the king of the jungle and it had some other information that was scientific that I don’t remember. Even locked up, they retained a magnificence. There was still a flicker in their eyes, or so I like to think, but maybe my memory here stems from the fact that I had been listening to a recording of famous poems around that time, and had developed a fascination for one in particular, about another big cat, and lately, I can’t shake it. It was “The Tyger” by William Blake, and it had the well-known phrase, “Tiger tiger burning bright.” Maybe you know it? It’s been recorded many times by British orators and “covered” by rock bands. Here are a couple of verses:

TIGER, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

In Los Angeles where I live, flames of that fire have licked at our gates in recent days. A cougar who lives at Griffith Park and thereabouts holed up for a few days in a dark space in a home near its range, creating a media frenzy and talk of how to make it leave and what if it attacked. Known as P22, the mountain lion slipped away one night, evading anchor folk and the rest of us, and according to its tracking collar, safely returned to what remains of the wilderness. As I wrote here at the time, the presence of P22 brought to mind how we have appropriated cougar spirit in our lives, and so too have I been thinking about how we have commandeered lion essence, or talk about it at least, as we go about our daily lives. By any chance, Dr. Palmer, are you a Leo? If not, you most likely know one or two such folk who have been born under this astrological sign, which is Latin for lion, so named by the ancients because at a certain time of the year, certain stars configured themselves so as to resemble the king of the jungle and those who emerged under this constellation were said to be imprinted with the characteristics of the lion, which is to say, they were fierce, courageous, they were the king.

Do lions figure into your life, I wonder? Do you dream about them? Do you love or hate the Detroit Lions? Have you been to a production of “The Lion King”? Most likely you’ve seen the MGM lion at the movies, possibly one of the most well-known marketing mascots of all time. Do you have any thoughts one way or another when he roars, even if only to know that the roar signals the start of something big?   When you were in Zimbabwe, did you hear lions roar? When that happened, what happened to you?

In the timeless time, aboriginal hunters said that a desired animal would present itself to the one who desired it, head into the line of attack and make eye contact just before it was felled, as if to say, “I’m yours. Take me.” The animal knew that conditions required its sacrifice; the tribe was hungry and on the animal, the two-legged members of its circle were dependent. After the animal was taken, there was ceremony and the web was not broken.

Dr. Palmer, let me put it to you this way: I am asking you to come in and lay down your arms. If you give up trophy hunting in honor of Cecil, you wouldn’t be alone. In fact, you’d be in fine company.

May I introduce you to Aldo Leopold? He happens to be a founder of the wilderness system that we have in America today, and helped take the country from outdated concepts of wildlife management which he himself was involved with to an approach that was more inclusive of animals and their welfare. His writings about the environment were far ahead of his time, and they have since become an underpinning of the modern campaign for ecosystem and wildlife protection.   Before he became such an influential person, he was a hunter, a bounty hunter in effect, paid by the government in his capacity as manager of the Gila Wilderness in Arizona, and he liked it. Yet it was through hunting that he came to renounce the practice of killing wild animals in order to save things. His turn-around was not conceptual, not the result of an idea; it happened one moment after he killed a wolf and he wrote about it in his seminal piece, “Thinking Like a Mountain,” which appears in Sand County Almanac,  his collection of essays about how we live on and with the land and share it with other creatures great and small. It was first published in 1949, though this particular hunt had happened sometime earlier. Here’s an excerpt, describing the sojourn and his transformation:

A deep chesty bawl echoes from rimrock to rimrock, rolls down the mountain, and fades into the far blackness of the night. It is an outburst of wild defiant sorrow, and of contempt for all the adversities of the world. Every living thing (and perhaps many a dead one as well) pays heed to that call. To the deer it is a reminder of the way of all flesh, to the pine a forecast of midnight scuffles and of blood upon the snow, to the coyote a promise of gleanings to come, to the cowman a threat of red ink at the bank, to the hunter a challenge of fang against bullet. Yet behind these obvious and immediate hopes and fears there lies a deeper meaning, known only to the mountain itself. Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf…

My own conviction on this score dates from the day I saw a wolf die. We were eating lunch on a high rimrock, at the foot of which a turbulent river elbowed its way. We saw what we thought was a doe fording the torrent, her breast awash in white water. When she climbed the bank toward us and shook out her tail, we realized our error: it was a wolf. A half-dozen others, evidently grown pups, sprang from the willows and all joined in a welcoming melee of wagging tails and playful maulings. What was literally a pile of wolves writhed and tumbled in the center of an open flat at the foot of our rimrock.

In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy: how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks.

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.

And so, I ask you again: Dr. Palmer, would you come in and lay down your arms? If you give up trophy hunting in honor of Cecil, you wouldn’t be alone. Aldo Leopold wasn’t; in fact, he had fine company.

May I introduce you to Ernest Thompson Seton? It was in his footsteps that Leopold travelled, although that does not seem to have been on his mind, in an overt way at least. Yet it is very likely that any well-informed hunter of his era, and any wilderness-minded individual, would have known the story of the famed wolf called Lobo, the one whose brutal killing at the hands of Seton, the dedicated hunter, changed the life of this man – and the country. You see, in 1893 he responded to a call for help from ranchers in New Mexico; their cattle was under siege, they said, and one wolf in particular was to blame, leading his pack in all manner of bloodthirsty raids and making it impossible to stake out a decent life in the wilderness. So Seton travelled to the beleaguered region to stalk the animal known as “vermin” – using terminology that is still in use today, applied to many wild animals – during the final stages of the great wolf removals of that era. It was not the first of such hunts for him; in fact as the Telegraph reported several years ago, before he had emigrated to the United States from Canada, he had written the definitive manual on how to catch wolves. By the time he arrived in New Mexico for the hunt he would document in a short story, only several wolves remained, including Old Lobo. Along with a posse of other men, Seton spent months tracking the “outlaw,” as he was treated and called, wanted just as badly as any fugitive who had eluded the hanging tree.   And oh that Lobo was smart, all right; as Seton later wrote, the wolf had “disarmed” his traps, avoiding bait that was laced with strychnine and cyanide while managing to extract sustenance from a thing that would have otherwise killed him. This only added to his notoriety and allure, making him all the more defiant and wanted, and his stalkers took the ability to elude them as an affront, and Seton noted that the situation had become a humiliation. Finally, he discovered that Lobo had a mate, a white wolf known as Blanca, and now he had a way to catch Lobo. After luring Blanca into a baited trap, he killed her, “the first death blow we had been able to inflict on the pack,” he said. And then something happened that surprised him, and it was so shattering that it would lead him to write “Lobo, the King of Currumpaw,” a story that came to guide the country along a new path of greater protections for wolves after it appeared in an illustrated collection of his stories called Wild Animals I Have Known. Here is an excerpt:

At intervals during the tragedy, and afterward as we rode homeward, we heard the roar of Lobo as he wandered about on the distant mesas, where he seemed to be searching for Blanca. He had never really deserted her, but, knowing that he could not save her, his deep-rooted dread of firearms had been too much for him when he saw us approaching. All that day we heard him wailing as he roamed in his quest, and I remarked at length to one of the boys, “Now, indeed, I truly know that Blanca was his mate.”

As evening fell he seemed to be coming toward the home canyon, for his voice sounded continually nearer.

There was an unmistakable note of sorrow in it now. It was no longer the loud, defiant howl, but a long, plaintive wail; “Blanca! Blanca!” he seemed to call. And as night came down, I noticed that he was not far from the place where we had overtaken her. At length he seemed to find the trail, and when he came to the spot where we had killed her, his heartbroken wailing was piteous to hear. It was sadder than I could possibly have believed. Even the stolid cowboys noticed it, and said they had “never heard a wolf carry on like that before.” He seemed to know exactly what had taken place, for her blood had stained the place of her death…

He then set steel traps for Lobo, 130 of them, buried and concealed them, and dragged Blanca across each one, laying down her scent. Lobo responded to one of them, and it gripped each of his legs in a way that was final, and that’s how Seton found him, the next day, a “a great grizzly form” arising from the ground, “vainly endeavoring to escape.” Yet the old wolf continued to struggle, the light still fierce his eyes, and the men further subdued him, deciding not to shoot him and end his pain, but instead placing him atop a horse and taking him back to their camp, where they could secure his hide.   En route, Seton noted that Lobo’s eyes were no longer focused on his hunters, but

Afar on the great rolling mesas they were fixed, his passing kingdom, where his famous band was now scattered. And he gazed till the pony descended the pathway into the canyon, and the rocks cut off the view….[Back at camp] I set meat and water beside him but he paid no heed. He lay calmly on his breast, and gazed with those steadfast yellow eyes away past me down through the gateway of the canyon, over the open plains—his plains—nor moved a muscle when I touched him. When the sun went down he was still gazing fixedly across the prairie. I expected he would call up his band when night came, and prepared for them, but he had called once in his extremity, and none had come; he would never call again.

A lion shorn of his strength, an eagle robbed of his freedom, or a dove bereft of his mate, all die, it is said, of a broken heart; and who will aver that this grim bandit could bear the three-fold brunt, heart-whole? This only I know, that when the morning dawned, he was lying there still in his position of calm repose, his body unwounded, but his spirit was gone—the old kingwolf was dead.

I took the chain from his neck, a cowboy helped me to carry him to the shed where lay the remains of Blanca, and as we laid him beside her, the cattle-man exclaimed: “There, you would come to her, now you are together again.

 So I ask you again, Dr. Palmer, won’t you come in and lay down your arms? If you give up trophy hunting in honor of Cecil, you wouldn’t be alone. In fact, you’d be in fine company. Along with the men I have mentioned, there are others out there. Like you, they have taken the lives of wild animals in the name of other things, but not always. I know because I’ve met them. When they are young and in their prime, they are unreachable, defiant, afraid. They are receiving approval for their acts from a circle of friends and it is a thing with which they are familiar and it sustains them. They are equipped with all manner of gear and accessories, “varmint calls” that let them “hunt the hunters” and after they’ve done it, they display the take proudly and sometimes are photographed with it in a manner such as you know. Years later, some are full of remorse, or more accurately, some of their kind, for I have not followed their lives individually, but have met and spent time with different sorts of hunters at different stages of their lives, and those who have killed for sport and are remorseful cannot show this feeling to their friends. Sometimes they come to my talks, after others have left, unassuming, defeated, not really a part of this world. “I’m sorry,” they say, on the verge of tears in certain instances, sometimes extending a hand. And then they tell me what they have done, which is to say kill wild horses (as mustangs and the ongoing war against them is the subject of one of my books). They regret their role in the decimation of our herds, living in the West as most of them do, and now looking out their back doors, say, if they have a home (some are without one, living on the road, cast aside like the animals we do not want), and seeing a Wal-Mart, for instance, or string of fast food establishments, on the horizon of the once open range. “It’s all gone,” they say, and they know they have been part of the wipe-out, which extends to all wild animals at this point, and they have participated in the wars against all of these animals (if you think that a wild horse is a “varmint,” you generally think that wolves and mountain lions and bobcats are too, and they have, for instance, used the carcasses of wild horse to attract other four-leggeds so they can kill them). Now, with everything gone and the land empty, they ask me what they can do. “To make things right,” they say, like a prayer, and they tear up and begin to have trouble talking and then they leave, vanishing into the national vapors. “In America,” Jim Harrison once wrote, “there are a lot of bodies by the side of the road.”

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Photo by Larry Lasker

Finally, there is one more thing I’d like to say and then I’ll be on my way.   Earlier this year, my dear friend, Michael Blake, passed away.   You may not be familiar with his name, but you well may know his legacy. He wrote “Dances with Wolves” – the book and the movie. Throughout his life, Michael spoke on behalf of all wild things, including mountain lions, and like me, he was a long-time defender of wild horses. Here is an excerpt from “Horse Number 1202,” a poem he wrote about a wild horse after it was seized from the wilderness and penned up in a government corral:

In city traffic
I remember his eyes
So dark and wet
So full of God

Michael adopted this stallion sometime after he was seized from the land, and he named him “Twelve,” part of the government brand on his neck. He took him home to Wolf House, the wilderness ranch in Arizona that Michael named in tribute to Jack London and his writing studio in northern California.  On the spread in the Sonoran Desert, Michael lived with other rescued horses, a rescued raven and various dogs and cats, working on new stories and traveling between bouts of cancer, trying to bring attention to the plight of wild horses. “Whatever he may be doing at this moment,” he once wrote of Twelve in his book about him, “it is of no harm to anyone or anything. He has never performed a destructive act in his life. Lying or cheating for personal gain is not part of his being, nor is the accumulation of wealth for its own sake. The only system he is part of is that of the Creator.”

There came a time that Michael could no longer fight an increasing number of maladies. He began alternating his days between friends and family and then finally, he moved to a hospice. The last time I spoke with him was in a phone call at Christmas, arranged by a mutual friend, John Coinman, who has memorialized the West in song. John and his wife Jo Anderson were helping Michael connect with close pals in his final days, and sometimes John would dial the phone and hand it off to Michael.   As we often did over the years, we talked about our writing and then Michael told me about some things that were bothering him, such as the fact that among other things, he couldn’t remember the parts of speech (or maybe that was in an earlier conversation; they’re all conflated now). In any case, the implication was: what did that mean for him as a writer and if he couldn’t write, then what?, for that was where he lived, but he didn’t say that, and somewhere in the conversation, he told me to keep writing, which is something he always said, but this time it took on a heightened meaning.   I could hear the anguish in his voice, and he was passing the baton, or so I like to think, yet you see, he still had these stories in his head. He told me he so, and I believed him. The thing was, he could not get them out and on to the page; he simply could not remember how to write a sentence. And so the songs remained inside him – or in the thousands of pages he inscribed before he died, now in his archives. But what is surely an opera for all time made its way through Michael and we are all the better for it. Recently, his ashes were scattered over Twelve’s burial site at Wolf House. “Although his age could not be proven,” Michael said, “it was somewhere in the vicinity of forty years…I have visited his grave nearly every day since he died, driven not so much by grief as a sense of honor.”

Since the moment he walked on, to use Native American parlance, I’ve been wanting to write something for Michael, but I did not know how or what to say. I think that now, with this letter, I’ve said it.

I wasn’t sure how to begin and now, I’m not quite sure how to sign off. I guess I’ll keep it simple and thank you for your time, Dr. Palmer. And if you’ve gotten this far, I’d like to put it out there one more time: won’t you come in and lay down your arms? You wouldn’t be alone.

Sincerely,

Deanne Stillman

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