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Dentist accused in Cecil the lion's death says he thought hunt was legal

A website, cecilthelion.org, was created to tell the story of Cecil and to solicit donations. [Screengrab from cecilthelion.org]
A website, cecilthelion.org, was created to tell the story of Cecil and to solicit donations. [Screengrab from cecilthelion.org]
Published Jul. 30, 2015

ST. PAUL, Minn. — An American dentist who admitted he killed a well-known lion this month in Zimbabwe and planned to mount the head kept his office closed Wednesday as the furor against him online has turned vitriolic and, at times, threatening.

Dr. Walter J. Palmer's neatly groomed property near Minneapolis, adjacent to a preschool, has turned from a dentist's office to a memorial to the lion, called Cecil, with red roses and more than a dozen stuffed animals laid outside the locked front door.

In the hours after Palmer said he had killed the lion under the impression that the hunt was legal and undertaken with the proper permits, he went from a dentist and longtime hunting enthusiast to the villain at the center of a virtual firestorm over the ethics of big-game trophy hunting. He apologized in a statement: "I deeply regret that my pursuit of an activity I love and practice responsibly and legally resulted in the taking of this lion."

But demonstrators gathered outside Palmer's office late Wednesday afternoon, and some of his patients were among them.

Some carried signs that read "Killer" and "I am Cecil" and chanted, "Justice for Cecil."

A Bloomington mother brought her two small children to the protest. One of them, 3-year-old Beckett Madison, wore a lion's costume and a sign that read, "Protect Me, Don't Hunt Me."

Signs also were taped on Palmer's office door, including "ROT IN HELL" and "PALMER There's a deep cavity waiting for you!"

About a dozen police officers monitored the scene but allowed the peaceful protest to continue.

There was no answer to repeated knocks and doorbell rings at Palmer's large, stucco house in an affluent, wooded neighborhood. His neighbors would not comment.

The death of Cecil, a 13-year-old lion who was lured out of his sanctuary in a national park in Zimbabwe this month, struck a chord with social media users. Palmer had paid around $54,000 to hunt the animal, according to news reports.

According to the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, the lion was shot by Palmer with a crossbow after it was lured out of the sanctuary, following the scent of food. Cecil, well known to those who visited the Hwange National Park in western Zimbabwe for his jet black mane, was only injured by the arrow. The hunters tracked the lion for about two days before it was killed with a gun, conservation officials said. It was beheaded and skinned, the corpse left to rot.

As more details around the killing emerged, activists used search engines to find Palmer's contact information and social media to share information about his business and his family, stirring a fever pitch of anger strong enough to effectively dismantle his digital life.

Angry people sent a surge of traffic to Palmer's website, which was taken offline. Vitriolic reviews flooded his Yelp page — "Murderer," one reviewer wrote. A Facebook page titled "Shame Lion Killer Dr. Palmer and River Bluff Dental" drew thousands of users. Professional profiles of Palmer were also scrubbed from industry websites.

Zimbabwean officials said Palmer was being sought on poaching charges. In a statement on Tuesday, Palmer said that he had not been contacted by the authorities but that he was willing to cooperate with their requests. He said he believed what he had done was legal.

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"I had no idea that the lion I took was a known, local favorite, was collared and part of a study, until the end of the hunt," Palmer said. "I relied on the expertise of my local professional guides to ensure a legal hunt."

A big-game hunter who prides himself on his skills in hunting without firearms, Palmer paid $45,000 at an auction to help preserve an elk habitat in California. He was profiled in 2009 in the New York Times when he shot and killed an elk from 75 yards with a compound bow in pursuit of a new bowhunting record. The Telegraph in Britain reported on Tuesday that he paid around $54,000 for the opportunity to hunt a lion.

Palmer faced probation after he pleaded guilty in 2008 to making a false statement to federal officials about where, exactly, a black bear was killed in Wisconsin.

Two Zimbabwean men, a farm owner and a professional hunter, are accused of helping Palmer hunt the lion. They appeared in court on Wednesday on poaching charges.

The Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority and the Safari Operators Association of Zimbabwe said that the farm owner did not have a hunting permit. The professional hunter's license has been suspended, the statement said.

Meanwhile, federal authorities in the United States said Wednesday they are poised to assist officials in Zimbabwe in their investigation of Palmer and the two men who were with him when Cecil was shot with a bow and arrow and then finished off with a gunshot.

Laury Marshall Parramore, spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said her agency is deeply concerned about the killing of Cecil. "We are currently gathering facts about the issue and will assist Zimbabwe officials in whatever manner requested. It is up to all of us — not just the people of Africa — to ensure that healthy, wild populations of animals continue to roam the savanna for generations to come."

The U.S. Justice Department said in a statement that it's also "aware of the situation and looking into the facts."

Late Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., urged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of Justice to investigate whether the killing violated any endangered species laws.

In Zimbabwe, the hunting guide and the farm owner appeared in court Wednesday, and the head of Zimbabwe's safari association said the black-maned lion was unethically lured into the kill zone and denied "a chance of a fair chase."

During the nighttime hunt, the men tied a dead animal to their car to draw the lion out of a national park, said Johnny Rodrigues, chairman of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force.

Palmer is believed to have shot it with a crossbow, injuring the cat. The wounded lion was tracked for 40 hours before Palmer fatally shot it with a rifle, Rodrigues said.

The professional hunter, Theo Bronkhorst, was accused of failing to "prevent an unlawful hunt." Court documents say Bronkhorst was supervising while Palmer shot the animal.

Bronkhorst was released on $1,000 bail after appearing at the Hwange magistrate's court, about 435 miles west of the capital Harare, according to his defense lawyer, Givemore Muvhiringi.

If convicted, Bronkhorst faces up to 15 years in prison.

The farm owner, Honest Trymore Ndlovu, also appeared in court but was not charged and was released from custody, his lawyer Tonderai Makuku said.

The court documents made no mention of Palmer as a suspect.

Using bait to lure the lion is deemed unethical by the Safari Operators Association of Zimbabwe, of which Bronkhorst is a member. The association has since revoked his license.

"Ethics are certainly against baiting. Animals are supposed to be given a chance of a fair chase," Emmanuel Fundira, the association's president, said Tuesday. "In fact, it was not a hunt at all. The animal was baited, and that is not how we do it. It is not allowed."

Information from the New York Times, Associated Press and Star Tribune of Minneapolis was used in this report.