Cecil the Lion and Our Moral Isolation

Cecil the Lion
Cecil the Lion

Cecil the Lion. He’s everywhere on the Internet. I can’t bring myself to look at most of it. It’s something like what I felt in the years I was reading about the Holocaust. At some point, my reading threatened to overwhelm me, and I had to stop. I had to put a distance between myself and that story. I know it’s there. I know what happened. I just can’t come that close to it anymore and continue to live a productive life.

I first became vegetarian over 50 years ago. The reality of being the only vegetarian in my world through much of my life made it exceptionally difficult, and I went back and forth a number of times over the years. No more back and forth during the last twenty years.

There were many reasons for my vegetarianism, and I’ve written about some of them in my blog. The primary reason was that I felt it was moral cowardice and irresponsibility to purchase meat in plastic and styrofoam at the local grocery store. If I were going to eat meat, I should slaughter the animal myself, directly accepting responsibility for the life I was taking. That would never happen – because I don’t want to kill other creatures. Period. So why would I buy and eat the flesh of another creature just because the whole process happened out of sight?

My vegetarianism was based on a statement of Adelle Davis, that she eats only the products that animals give us without suffering. Turns out that in today’s world, there are not products animals give us without suffering. I started moving toward veganism a couple of years ago, and that is the basis of my comments about Cecil the Lion.

I’m finding this transition to veganism difficult, partly for health reasons, partly for social reasons and partly because I love cheese and eggs and am not a fan of substitute foods. I read a lot, and I experiment with cooking. I take every opportunity I can to make and share vegan foods with others so I can build a social network that still enjoys my food. I try to immerse myself in vegan culture online, because I know how acculturation works. For reasons I mentioned above, though, I keep some of the horrific pictures of animal suffering that some vegans post out of my view. I know it’s there. I don’t want to be overwhelmed.

One day when I was reading, I came to an ad about vegan boots. Vegan boots?! I read more as I thought about my new leather clogs, the first new shoes I’ve purchased in 10 years. I thought about the (two) leather belts in my closet.

But what I thought about most was that as thoughtful as I am about veganism, the whys, the wherefores, the hows of it, the fact that I wear leather shoes simply escaped my attention. I didn’t think about that.

Since then, I have thought a lot about that disconnect. It occurs to me that we all have a tendency to disconnect. The places where each of us disconnects are different, but it’s there. Sometimes it’s a conscious disconnect, as I did from the stories of Cecil. Most of the time it’s unconscious, like me believing whole-heartedly in the importance and necessity of veganism in today’s world yet wearing leather shoes.

I’ve debated what to do with those new shoes, the first in ten years. I considered giving them away and buying some vegan boots. There is a principle in my religion of not wasting the fruits of the earth. I decided that since I already have them, I will wear them for another ten years until they wear out. They will be a testament to my human imperfections and contradictions  and will keep me humble.

I continue to think about why I had that disconnect. I mentioned acculturation. I was born into and grew up in a world where the norm was to use animals for our purposes. It was sanctioned by religions, although if you read between the lines of the Bible, which is the religious literature I know best, you will see that even animal sacrifice is in part expiation for fellow creature-killing. Rabbinic commentaries suggest meat-eating was permitted after the flood as a channel for human violence. But the fact is, it is permitted, and it was a normal (and pretty much unexamined) part of every day life.

I was also born into a suburban world, a world where most of us, at least in this country, were no longer farmers and were no longer directly connected to the cycle of life and death that results from being closer to nature or living in rural, farming environments. We got our food from the local grocery store, already neatly packaged and separated from its source. Culturally we had no awareness of sources, not for food, not for clothing and not for much of anything else we used. Remember, I’m talking more than half a century ago.

And things changed so dramatically over the last half century. Grocery stores are huge compared to what they were. Fast food and cheap clothing is what we expect. And the source of those products has changed so dramatically. Factory farms have entered the landscape. Our numbers have increased, but so have our appetites. Everything became mechanized while we weren’t watching. And our separation from the issues of survival and the process of life and death is total, with devastating effects to our spiritual state and our emotional state.

It’s hard work to reconnect. It’s step-by-step work, work I feel I need to do — but I also don’t want to get overwhelmed by the suffering in the world, the suffering and pain we endure and the suffering and pain we inflict.

Maybe some moral isolation is a necessity to live productive lives. Incidents like killing Cecil the Lion remind us, though, that it’s a luxury we can’t afford. It’s not enough to condemn the action of a man who killed a beautiful creature for “sport.”

Concerned people have heard the stories and seen the pictures of what allegedly goes on at factory farms. I wrote a post titled “5 Reasons Vegans Shouldn’t Publish Disturbing Animal Pictures.” These pictures are just too disturbing, and I wonder what they accomplish.

Can we live in a world like this and not become morally immune? I did. I didn’t notice my shoes.

A friend of mine, Pauline Yearwood from Chicago Jewish News, shared this comment on FaceBook, and it seems appropriate:

From Gary L. Francione, The Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights

If you are upset about the killing of Cecil the Lion and you are not a vegan, then you are suffering from moral schizophrenia. There is no difference between Cecil and all of the animals you eat who value their lives as much as the lion valued his.

I have been a moral schizophrenic in my life, and to an extent, I probably will always be one. But for my own spiritual health and for the health of the planet, I will work every day to be less of one.

For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

11 thoughts on “Cecil the Lion and Our Moral Isolation

  • July 30, 2015 at 4:53 pm

    You bring up an important matter, the “disconnect” that happens, even among the most mindful and informed. I have been vegetarian for over 25 years, and am now primarily vegan, though I do cave to cheese and butter at times. Your words are very thought provoking. Years ago I wrestled with the matter of leather. I learned that many Native American tribes utilized all parts of the animals they killed, because to take a life and then waste part of it was unjust to the animal and the Giver of life itself. I came to terms with leather as a byproduct of the meat industry though our world hardly resembles the world Native Americans once enjoyed.

    There is something in me that thinks about things around my home and in my closet, and where they came from. I look at my knotted rug and consider the weavers, and say a prayer of thanksgiving for the beauty they have created, and I wish them peace and happiness. I was assured the rug was not made by children. I look at my old chi wara African head dress which was used to celebrate harvest and plantings in a culture that is nearly extinct. When in Morocco I saw shops of old artifacts and remnants of tribal life. My first reaction was of deep appreciation, and then I considered the loss of that time in history, and I felt sadness. I wanted to take them all home with me and keep them safe, but of course that was not an option. And my chi wara is still alone, but cherished. (I bought it from a consignment shop.) I have a cabinet built from salvaged doors of old dwellings in India that were torn down for modernization. I have some South American pottery made only by woman, unique to the region, their sole source of income… and for them too, I give thanks and pray for their wellbeing.

    Thinking about that “disconnect”… I wonder if I am part of the problem, or part of the solution. I am not wealthy, but I can keep certain items special to me from being destroyed .

    Two years ago I developed an allergy to synthetic materials (petroleum based) and to synthetic dyes, the darker colors being the worst. I must wear natural fibers and materials to be safe. I must sleep on cotton and latex mattress and wear rubber boots (not plastic) at the barn. It also meant leather is better for footwear than plastic for me. Ugh… it’s all so complicated.

    I probably think too much about all these things, and perhaps the worst result would be to walk in guilt about the messiness of it all, there is nothing clear cut about it, and grey areas seem to be the norm.

    But there is no grey area for me about Cecil… I have a heavy heart about what happened, and heartsick still.

    I know peace is a product of acceptance of the circumstances we encounter in life, and as a spiritual being, I also aspire to peace for all. My hope is that his death brings awareness, which is the very seed of change.

    • July 30, 2015 at 5:38 pm

      Dorothy, thank you so much for these beautiful, thoughtful comments. I really appreciate hearing others’ stories and thoughts. It’s the most important thing we can do, connect with each other. I share your hope, that Cecil’s death brings the awareness that is the seed of change.

      • July 30, 2015 at 7:32 pm

        I did get a tad carried away with my comment, but I agree connecting with each other is important work, we are social beings. I have not been able to read much about the death of Cecil or the outcry resulting from it. But then, I don’t even watch the evening news. It’s not about hiding from the truth, it’s about turning my focus away from the violence and horrors. But I care about the Cecil story, and I knew whatever you would have to say about it would be good reading and nourishing food for thought.

        • July 30, 2015 at 7:58 pm

          That’s exactly what I do! Care about it but turn my focus away. I like to look at the stories of kindness. I mentioned to Monica – when she’s in town again, we’ll all have to arrange to connect somewhere. I’d love to meet her and spend a little time talking face-to-face with you both, doesn’t matter about what. I love her trip she’s on! I look forward to catching up with her every morning via FB. 🙂 – Connie and Green Box Boutique are at 100 Cass St. near The Backdrop, if you know where that is.

    • July 30, 2015 at 5:38 pm

      Btw, I’m sure you’ve visited The Green Box Boutique? Her clothes and other items would probably be perfect for you.

  • July 30, 2015 at 8:36 pm

    Leslie, that would be wonderful. Monica comes to town about once a year or so. She was just here in April, so it will probably be awhile. Her life in England is a source of constant amazement to me, and her passion for food has helped her build some great connections with British chefs and foodies of all kinds. She’s self supporting and multi-faceted to be sure. This bike excursion through France is quite ambitious. I am enjoying the photographs and encounters she’s making, and look forward to her arrival at Camont in Glascony. 🙂

  • August 3, 2015 at 7:56 am

    dear Leslie,
    At the risk (or opportunity) of upsetting the apple cart, I will share my recent perspectives that are relevant to your comments about causing suffering and death. I have a progressive medical issue that results in constant pain and progressive loss of valuable abilities such as balance and coordination, hearing and vision. I no longer have any expectations that life will be without suffering and death. In fact, I don’t know how we can be certain that there is a moral imperative against somehow participating in the system that results in suffering and death, not just to animals but also to plants.

    Like you, I grew up wanting to, as much as reasonable and possible, avoid causing suffering and death, not just to animals, but also to plants. What makes animals more deserving of this consideration than plants?

    Of course, that raises the obvious problem that we humans are designed to consume products made of other living things. Both animals and plants consume, similarly, products made of other living things. You and I both struggle with this but it strikes me that this is reality, like it or not. Perhaps we need to, “Get over it,” and accept that suffering and death is something that is part of reality that we cannot change. I am reminded of the message of the Serenity Prayer.

    I am certainly not intending to be critical of your ideas. We share the same values. I I like to consider difficult questions and issues and this strikes me as, at least, a set of difficult questions and issues.

    We cannot deny that, as humans, we have limited and biased perspectives. Are we able to ever rise above them? I personally think the answer is, “sometimes yes.”

    • August 3, 2015 at 8:55 am

      Thanks for your as always thought-provoking message. We’re on the same page, as we so often are. Here’s what I said in “Starting Thoughts” in this blog:

      “This thought occurs to me about meals: as we gather raw ingredients, prepare food and eat, we embrace the central moral paradox of human existence, that it requires taking life to sustain life. How we respond to that paradox defines us as human beings.

      “As we journey through our lives, we both eat and nourish, destroy and enrich. The great gift we have as human beings is that we can make conscious decisions about the balance of eating and nourishing, taking and giving, in our own lives. The challenge is to remain fully aware, making conscious choices on each step of our journey.”

      Here’s the problem, from my perspective – not that we have to take life to survive, but that we take it thoughtlessly, needlessly, greedily, mechanistically — and we don’t recognize our responsibility or accept it. Cecil the Lion didn’t provide anything in his death that someone needed in order to live. A head to hang on a wall? But he’s just symbolic of a world in which we treat our fellow creatures like inanimate objects, there for us to do whatever we want.

      I know you have worked hard to bring attention to this issue in the medical profession – treating people mechanistically, without thought for their personhood.

      Isaac Bashevis Singer said every day is “Treblinka fur die Tieren.” We herd animals into impossibly cramped quarters, force them to give birth, throw away what we don’t want to support (male chicks and calves of dairy cows), stuff them with unnatural foods, hormones and antibiotics, slaughter them at a young age with no thought for their creatureliness, their pain or their terror and stick their parts in styrofoam packages. For the most part, we don’t even pray at family meals anymore, at the very least taking a moment to recognize that a creature was killed for us, accepting our responsibility in that.

      When my Dad told me about the Holocaust – I think in my early teens – he told me we are all responsible. I think what he meant is that evil happening in the world doesn’t just involve those relatively few individuals who carry out evil acts. We can’t just put events like the Holocaust in a box and say Hitler and his cronies did it. We are all implicated when we don’t pay attention, when we don’t think about the implications of the choices we make and take responsibility for them. That’s what I was trying to say about my shoes. Despite the fact that I do think about things like where my food comes from – I just didn’t think about my shoes.

      The issues are difficult, death and suffering are part of reality, people make different decisions, and I respect those decisions. You can’t escape life without blood (or plant dust) on your hands. We all just have to find the place we can live as productively as possible, and for me, with regard to food, the line comes at doing things separated from the consequences, taking no responsibility for the consequences – just not bothering enough to think about them. I don’t want to personally treat animals the way our culture treats them, so for me, it’s not right to enable that system with my purchases or enjoy those benefits while others do the dirty work. If I lived in a different world, I would probably have my own chickens and a milk cow or goat.

      This thought occurs to me: our fellow creatures who kill for food just kill what they need to survive. Every morsel gets used. We’re the only species that kills for fun. And 40% of food never makes it into mouths — it’s thrown out. We’re the only species that does that.

      I don’t want to sound self-righteous. I’m part of the world we live in. I’m responsible. My blog is my effort to slow down and become more aware. Do what I can to make my choices conscious.

      Andy likes nature shows on TV. He turns it off, though, if it arrives at a point that one creature is hunting and killing another. My reaction was, but that’s nature. His response was, it was a stupid plan for creation. But you’re right, that’s what we’ve got, and we do the best we can with it.


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