Last Thanksgiving, after all the turkey had been demolished, football games wrapped, and family members waddled home, someone ventured to a remote beach on Kaua‘i, picked up a large rock, raised it high, and smashed it into the skull of a sleeping Hawaiian monk seal. Or maybe they used a bat. Or tire iron.
In the sea, Hawaiian monk seals predate on small kine things—octopus, lobster, small fish. On land, they sleep, awkwardly hauling their bodies out of the surf above tideline. If pressed, they could barely outrace the fastest Green sea turtle. And by run, I mean galumph.
This particular monk seal, tagged RF58, was five months old, a baby, and as a female, the hope of her species. With three percent dying off every year, an estimated 1,100 monk seals remain, swimming the seas of Hawai‘i, their native habitat, from the island of Hawai‘i at the southeastern end of the chain clear up to Kure Atoll in the northwestern archipelago, some 1,500 miles away. Monk seals are listed as critically endangered and federally protected by the Endangered Species Act.
I knew what would happen after the Humane Society of the United States, Conservation Council of Hawaii, Center for Biological Diversity, and the Monk Seal Foundation put up reward monies in the amount of $10,000, and when The Garden Islands Newspaper threw in another $10,000.
Something similar had happened before, the time when the County of Kaua‘i re-scheduled high school football games from Friday nights to Saturday afternoons to avoid “fallout” of endangered seabirds, chicks making their first flights from high in the interior mountains of Kaua‘i to the open ocean. On dark nights, the fledglings confuse the bright lights of football stadiums and parking lots and resorts with the reflection of the moon on the ocean, circle, collide with obstacles, and/or fall from the sky in exhaustion, unable to take off again. Back then, the reaction of a few select parents made the pages of the New York Times. “Buck the Firds,” their t-shirts read in protest, “They chose the birds over the keiki,” one parent said to a Times reporter, using the Hawaiian word for “children.”
Sure enough, when the reward monies were announced leading to the arrest and conviction of the monk seal killer last Thanksgiving, a few specific comments rolled in right as expected—in the newspaper, on social media, and if I worked in an office, probably around water coolers, as well. Don’t get me wrong there were way more, “What a horrible tragedy,” and “What kind of sick and demented person could do this?” And “Karma is coming your way. You may be taken violently by a shark.” But there were also comments about putting the money to better use—to help the homeless, hungry children, and other humans in need.
A couple weeks ago, the death of Cecil the Lion, a favorite at Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, was announced and details of his inhumane killing revealed—he’d been baited out of a protected area, he wore a research collar that should have made him ineligible for trophy killing, he’d been injured with an arrow and, then, tracked for 40 hours before being shot to death, whereupon, Cecil was skinned and beheaded, his carcass left behind, his radio collar mangled but still operating.
As the days wore on, new information came to light—the name of the American dentist who paid $50,000 to shoot Cecil with a bow and arrow, the professional hunters hired by said American who may or may not have had a permit, how Cecil’s numerous cubs are now doomed as a new alpha takes over the pride and kills off the offspring of his predecessor.
The initial outrage escalated to such an extent that the dentist shuttered his practice and went in hiding, fearful for his life.
And, then, on the heels of the initial outrage, outrage about the outrage came sprinting into the melee, hardly out of breath. “If that’s the worst thing you have to be up in arms around, you need to broaden your horizons a bit,” I read as part of a longer post on Facebook. There were, I was reminded, young girls being sold into the sex trade, African Americans being killed by police officers, and crazed killers arming themselves with automatic weapons and shooting school children.
It’s true. These are heinous, evil, criminal acts that need to stop. Now. I wholeheartedly agree. I am nodding my head with abandon.
“What if the outrage was targeted to something that really, really mattered?” my friend’s Facebook post read.
And here’s where my head went from nodding to spinning, and my thoughts splintered into a mess of sharp shards.
Why do we do this? Pit animals against humans. Isn’t the inherent message in the “outrage against Cecil outrage” that humans are more important than animals? Isn’t that the very problem underlying the foundation of child sex trafficking and racial profiling and all the other horrific things we humans are inflicting on fellow humans? We have subscribed to the idea of a valuation or hierarchy of life. That life A is more important than B is more important than C. Because here’s the thing: we depend on animals for our very life, even those of us who do not eat animal meat. So shouldn’t we revere animals? If we attack people for caring about Cecil the Lion, aren’t we teaching them not to care in the future? Doesn’t it work that if we are told we are wrong to feel a certain way, we will stop expressing those feelings, then stop feeling, and, eventually, stop caring? Maybe subconsciously Cecil represented a safe place to express outrage, kind of a reverse kick-the-dog-syndrome. That is, we may not express our true feelings on social media about politics, civil rights, and racial profiling for fear of backlash from our so-called friends. But when it comes to an innocent animal, we feel safe expressing outrage. Or so we thought. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t outraged when an African American woman gets pulled over for a minor traffic violation and is later found dead in her jail cell. Violence is violence. It doesn’t live in isolated pockets of life. Research shows the correlation of the inhumane treatment of animals with humans. In fact, according to news reports, Cecil’s killer paid $127,500 to settle a sexual harassment case brought against him by a receptionist at his dental practice. So, yes, curbing the inhumane treatment of animals really, really matters. Foster a love of animals, and we’ll foster a love for humanity. It’s pretty simple for me: Life is life, and it all matters. The wise and skillful Mahatma Gandhi understood this when he said, “The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” There is no limit to outrage. Just as there is no limit to love. Too, there is no one-size fits-all outrage. We need a diversity of outrage, just as our native forests need biological diversity to be healthy, in order to right the injustices of this world. A rising tide of outrage lifts all boats in the sea of life. So, when an endangered Hawaiian monk seal gets brutally killed, get outraged. When a Hollywood celebrity rapes a woman, get outraged. When the National Park Service threatens to kill a grizzly bear that, apparently, killed a hiker to protect her cubs, get outraged.
And those were just a few of the thoughts my brain managed to churn out. Here are a few more: Outrage shows our compassionate nature. Outrage shows we care. But there’s another side to outrage, equally as effective, one that suits my nature a little better than outrage.
Today, I woke to discover, is World Elephant Day. Two days ago was World Lion Day. Last week, the visages of a snow leopard, tiger, lemur, whale, snake, bird, and other threatened species were projected to heights of 1,250 feet on the side of the Empire State Building.
On the flip side of outrage is celebration.
Take time today to celebrate elephants. Celebrate lions and bears. Monk seals and killer whales. Wolves and albatrosses. And while we’re at it, let’s celebrate frogs and ferrets and salamanders and sea otters and tortoises and chimpanzees and bees, too.