By Ahmad Safi, Executive Director, and Liz Tyson, International Relations, Palestinian Animal League.
Last week, the internet and press was alive with outrage over the illegal killing of a lion named Cecil in Zimbabwe. Cecil, a local favourite amongst tourists and local people, was callously shot with a bow and arrow and left to suffer for 40 hours before his life was ended with a bullet. He was then decapitated and skinned so that his killer could take his body parts as a “trophy”. Since then, the hunter, identified as US dentist, Walter Palmer, has gone into hiding and there have been calls for his extradition to Zimbabwe to face charges for the illegal hunt. Conservationists and animal protectionists have suggested that Cecil’s tragic death may not be in vain as governments around the world begin to discuss the potential of banning the import of hunting “trophies”; a move which could curb the killing of more lions on the African continent. Whilst mourning the death of Cecil, the PAL team is delighted that his legacy may serve to protect other members of his species; and to prevent further mindless and cruel deaths occurring in future.
But this outrage at the killing of a lion comes with a backlash. It is difficult to avoid comparing the death of one lion to the death of other individuals, who have not been given even a fraction of the attention that Cecil’s death has generated. Vegan activists took to the internet to demand that, if people are so concerned about the death of Cecil, they should turn their attention to the millions of animals killed daily for food. In relation to the death of people, former UK MP, George Galloway, stated in press that “Palestinian blood is cheap” when he predicted that reports of a baby, Ali, being burned alive near Nablus on Friday would be unlikely to stir the international outrage that the death of Cecil did. He is probably right .
You may have seen news stories surrounding baby Ali’s death on Friday. Unless you followed the story in detail, you might not have seen that, later that evening, during violent clashes between Palestinians and Israeli armed forces, a young man was shot. He died a few hours later in hospital. His mother, a nurse, and his father were by his side. His name was Laith – which means “lion” in Arabic. Laith was seventeen years old and described as “carrying a smile wherever he went”. He had his whole life ahead of him and a loving family. He was buried on Saturday after his young life was cut short by a bullet. His father has supported the work of PAL and has been instrumental in establishing a volunteer group for us in Bir Zeit University, where he works. He is a personal friend of our team, a friend of the organization, and a staunch supporter of our work for animals. Laith’s cousin works with us as a volunteer. Our hearts go out to the family as they begin to move forward without their beloved boy.
Laith’s story has not been told by the mainstream press, other than a sentence tagged onto the end of an article about the tragedy of baby Ali and his family. Like many young men before him, it is unlikely that it will be told.
Animal protectionists know all too well that animals like Cecil are rarely named, rarely seen as individuals with lives of their own that they want to continue living. Instead, animals are discussed in numbers; over 115 million animals are used in experimentation each year, 56 billion (not including fish) are killed for food each year, and 600 lions like Cecil are killed for “sport” each year. They are discussed in terms of their utility to humans – they are our test subjects, they are our burgers, they are our entertainment. When an animal is a number, they become easier to exploit. And yet, when we allow ourselves to look, to really look, at the individuals, we find an empathy for them that perhaps we didn’t even know we had. Suddenly, we see them for what they are – sentient beings who have families and lives. And when those sentient beings are hurt or killed, we are affected, we are outraged and we demand action.
For once, it seems the tables are turned. This week, a lion named Cecil became something more than a number and the world mourned and a boy named Lion became little more than a number as his life was taken away.
But, although the majority of our team is made up of Palestinians, and Palestinian animal rights activists at that, whilst recognizing that there is a huge amount of suffering and death in the world which never gets the attention that it warrants, we do not want to condemn the empathy and compassion which has been triggered worldwide over the death of Cecil. We don’t want to make people feel that their concern for a lion is unwarranted or misguided. If fewer lions are killed in the future then that is a wonderful thing. We want to encourage people to look at all lions, indeed all animals (human and otherwise) as individuals who have lives worth living. We want to see an expansion of that empathy and compassion; and we don’t believe that this will be achieved by condemning people for their genuine concern and upset and telling them that they are focused on the wrong thing.
What can we learn from this?
What many Palestinians who have had their lives taken away from them have in common with the way in which non-human animals are treated is that, to the outside world, they are often viewed as numbers. We know that over 2,200 people (mostly civilians) were killed in the bombardment of Gaza last year, but few of us know the names of those people. But, as we have seen with Cecil, when we look beyond the numbers and seek the individual, this awakes in us a compassion and concern that can spread around the world and create meaningful change. Put simply, it can save lives.
So rather than condemn those people speaking out for Cecil, let us congratulate them for seeing beyond the numbers. Let us keep talking of those individuals whose names and lives are absent in the news, and on social media. Let us tell their stories. Let us demonstrate that every lion, every animal and every human being has a life worth living. Let us remember a lion named Cecil and a boy named Lion – giving both of these lives cut so tragically short the respect and attention they deserve.
We would like to thank Laith’s family for granting permission for this article to be published.