The Fadingly Infamous Walter Palmer

I, like many people, was disgusted with the slaying for “sport” of a semi-tame lion in Tanzania, but I never saw a good articulation of just why the act engendered such strong emotion. Until, that is, when after half a century I recently re-read a fiction story by the great John D. MacDonald. The third in his Travis McGee series, A Deadly shade of Gold contains a commentary on the phenomenon that is as pertinent now as it was when it was written in 1965.

After slaying his wounded lion while surrounded by his $50,000 coterie of trackers and protectors, Walter Palmer is apparently back drilling teeth these days, his notoriety fading even as Cecil’s noble head graces the wall of his den. But the distaste lingers and the coarser elements of human nature endure. Here’s how Travis McGee put it 60 year ago:

I do not like the killers, and the killing bravely and well crap. I do not like the bully boys, the Teddy Roosevelts, the Hemingways, the Ruarks. They are merely slightly more sophisticated versions of the New Jersey file clerks who swarm into the Adirondacks in the fall, in red cap, beard stubble and taut hero’s grin, talking out of the side of their mouths, exuding fumes of bourbon, come to slay the ferocious white-tail deer. It is the search for balls.

A man should have one chance to bring something down. He should have his shot at something, a shining running something, and see it come a-tumbling down, all mucus and steaming blood stench and gouted excrement, the eyes going dull during the final muscle spasms. And if he is, in all parts and purposes, a man, he will file that away as a part of his process of growth and life and eventual death.

And if he is perpetually, hopelessly a boy, he will lust to go do it again, with a bigger beast. They have all their earnest rationalizations about game control. It is good for animals to shoot them. It may serve some purpose to gut shoot them with a plastic arrow. We have so bitched up the various ecologies in all our areas, game control is a necessity. But it should be done by professionals paid to do it, the ones who cherish the healthy flocks, the ones who do not get their charge out of going bang at something with thrice the animal dignity they can ever attain.

I do violate my own concepts by slaying the occasional fish. And eating him. But spare me the brotherhood of the blood sports, the hairy ones, all the way from Macmillan and his forty grouse a day to some snot kid who tries to slay every species of big game in the world, with the assistance of his doting daddy.

There is one thing which strikes me as passing strange. Never have I met a man who had the infantry memories, who had knocked down human meat and seen it fall, who ever had any stomach for shooting living things. I could not imagine Paul Dominguez ever shooting even a marauding crow. He would need no romantic fantasies about himself. His manhood would need no artifical reinforcing.

Source:  Macdonald, John D. (2013-01-08). A Deadly Shade of Gold: A Travis McGee Novel (pp. 311-312). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.  A true copy except that I have fiddled with the paragraphing some.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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9 Responses to The Fadingly Infamous Walter Palmer

  1. henrygmorgan says:

    Jim: A longtime admirer of McDonald, I share his comments about wartime experience; for most, killing is not easy. I remember once in Korea asking a salty old Marine gunny how he dealt with killing. “Don’t worry,” he said, “You’ll get used to it,” exactly the opposite advice of what I wanted. You should try Hemingway’s “The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber” for another view of lion killing and manhood. I was surprised but delighted at the outrage over the death of Cecil. Bud


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Thanks for your war anecdote, Bud. That’s telling. It’s interesting to speculate on how much of killing is nature and how much nurture, a.k.a., training. I’m familiar with Hemingway’s Macomber story. Indeed, it makes a good counterpoint.


  2. I remember reading McDonald many years ago. Probably in the eighties. Your selection made a good re-reading. I was also surprised (and pleased) with the outrage over the dentist who paid to have Cecil the lion set up for shooting. But it puzzles me, the seeming (to me) inconsistency of this reaction from a public that routinely supports factory farming.
    Although I’m not generally a fan of Hemingway, I do think “The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber” is one of his best.


  3. PiedType says:

    I’ve always thought there was something seriously lacking or broken in a person who delights in killing animals not for subsistence but simply for the love of killing them.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Yes, me too. But of course, killing by humans is atavistic. From Science Daily:

      During the late Pleistocene, 40,000 to 10,000 years ago, North America lost over 50 percent of its large mammal species. These species include mammoths, mastodons, giant ground sloths, among many others. In total, 35 different genera (groups of species) disappeared, all of different habitat preferences and feeding habits.

      I guess the question is, can our intellect overcome our evolutionary nature? So far, I’m not sanguine about it. 😦


  4. Jay says:

    While I abhor hunting, I do think it was a bit hipocritical to be so condemning of this man while so many other attrocities against animals, and in fact humans, occur every day.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      I do think it was a bit hipocritical to be so condemning . . .

      Yes, Helen made the same point, one with which I agreed. I’ve thought about it and the only thing I can come up with is that it’s the curse of abstract thought. Man is the only animal capable of it. A top predator like a lion kills to eat, and indeed has the capacity for cruelty, but has no ability to be wasteful or massively destructive. Perhaps, at it’s core, the basic problem with Palmer’s passion is that it is destructive of nature’s balance, a food chain that lasted a couple-hundred million years. Many scientists say now that we are in the midst of the greatest extinction event ever. They call it the anthropocene.


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