Here's Why Walter Palmer Keeps Saying He 'Took' Cecil The Lion

Kill euphemisms can be a hunter's best friend.
Mike Hill via Getty Images

George Orwell once wrote that political language “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.” The same could be said of the language of the hunter:

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 ... I deeply regret that my pursuit of an activity I love and practice responsibly and legally resulted in the taking of this lion.

The words come from Walter Palmer, arguably the world's most infamous dentist. He sent them to patients in a two-pronged letter. In it, he apologizes for his killing of Cecil the Lion -- a beloved African male with a black mane and scientific significance -- and for the “disruption” the illegal kill caused Palmer’s now shuttered Minnesota practice, River Bluff Dental.

Critics point out his words ring as more contrite about the latter crisis than the former. What some are calling Palmer’s non-apology for the death of Cecil uses the obtuse and passive wordplay characteristic of the shadiest mea culpas in American history, from Ulysses S. Grant’s to Donald Sterling’s. He paints Cecil’s death as an outlier, insisting throughout his email that the hunt was sold to him as “legal” and “responsible.” Not once does he question the frailty of those terms in an industry reliant on players in impoverished countries (grotesque amounts of poaching are de rigeur in Zimbabwe, as any seasoned hunter knows).

But his most egregious abuse of the English language is his smallest: that little verb, “to take.”

Used commonly among hunters, the euphemism reveals a culture of Orwellian doublespeak prevalent throughout the hunting world, meant to assuage critics and lure the conflicted curious.

One of the few critiques of the dentist's choice of verb came from Jimmy Kimmel, who quipped, "You take aspirin. You killed the animal."

Kill euphemisms are tailored for the style of hunt. Trophy hunters like Palmer favor “taking,” or “collecting,” a nod to the golden era of safari hunting, when celebrated British nobles dragged entire families of zebra and gazelle back to their gloomy castles as carcasses. Today, we hear the buck hunter's analog more often: “harvesting.” This is reserved for those who kill for food -- deer, turkeys, elk -- usually in their home country. Lively as it is, the debate around the rhetoric of domestic hunting sheds light on the more exotic sin of "taking" a lion.

“Harvest,” with its undertones of a bygone era of ripe wheat fields and feasting pilgrims, has become the rhetorical weapon of choice for hunting organizations liaising with the American public. On its website, the Arizona Game and Fish Commission slips the word in with two saintlier aims: listing only the “management,” “preservation” and “harvest” of wildlife as its mission. Nowhere in the statement does the word “killing,” or even “hunting," appear.

Nearly identical language attends an amendment passed this May by the Texas state legislature to protect the rights of hunters in the face of what one NRA director called “extreme animal rights groups" (itself a neat turning of the rhetoric of "extremism").

At the website of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the Disneyfication of the term reaches new heights, with the option of printing one’s own “My First Harvest” certificate. Field questions include, “What kind of animal did you harvest?” complete with a drop-down menu specifying type, family and species. There’s even an option to upload a picture of the “harvested” animal, as if it weren't shot dead, but adopted.

The perversity of the trick hasn’t escaped ordinary rifle-toting citizens. On hunting forums, the topic inspires entire threads. Some argue that sugarcoating what they do only isolates hunters from the general public, a consequence no rights-lobbying shooter wants. Then there is the whiff of political correctness surrounding the whole thing, practically a dirty phrase in these forums.

A debate begun in 2003 on Rimfire Central, a pro-gun website, shows how rapidly the conversation can splinter. Titled “Hunting euphemisms: caving to the PC crowd?” the thread opens with a poster -- "Bill Bryan" -- explaining that he’s recently returned to hunting after a spell, only to notice "magazine writers, brochures from gun makers, websites, etc. using a new kind of lingo.” The change he typifies as a clean swap: “saying ‘harvested’ instead of ‘shot’ and ‘take’ instead of ‘kill.’”

"Is this," he wonders, "Orwellian, or what? Is it still OK to say 'kill' and 'shoot'?"

Even the first few responses vary wildly. One commenter differentiates based on type and purpose, writing that "one KILLS Rats, Mice, and other vermin. However one HARVEST [sic] game animals that he intends to consume for food." Immediately below, a writer dismisses all synonyms for killing as "PC BS." The debate briefly derails when a poster accuses Bryan of actually being a secret "'hug-a-tree' sort of guy or Peta lover ... just trying to start some BS here!!"

Stripped to its core, the debate over the rightness of the word "kill" is really about killing itself: is hunting wrong or right? Here is where semantics confuse an already confusing issue. The statistics on hunting as conservation -- a link that's led to words like "culling" and "harvesting" in place of "killing" -- remain murky. A slice of the data in favor of big-game hunting of the sort Palmer does relies on the self-reporting of hunters, who may well claim to prefer shooting elderly male animals in unscenic venues (the best hunting scenario, from an ecological perspective) to slant research in their favor.

They would be wise to do so. In the age of the Internet, PR nightmares lead to actual action, from California's ban on hunting with hounds -- a bit of legislative damage control after a photograph leaked of the state's Fish & Game Commission president grinning next to a dead cougar he shot -- to the wave of international airline bans on dead animal cargo, instated after a picture of a reality TV huntress lying next to a bull giraffe she felled went viral.

Before the age of the shareable image, those who would sway the public understood the power of language. In his 1996 book, In The Company of Animals: A Study of Human-Animal Relationships, ethicist James Serpell tracked various euphemisms for killing and maiming animals. Many revolve around vivisection, or surgery done on live animals, often for research purposes.

Vivisectors "do not kill their animal subjects," Serpell writes. "They 'dispatch,' 'terminate,' or 'sacrifice' them," just as hunters "are only 'harvesting,' 'bagging,' or 'taking' the animals they shoot to death."

As in hunting, leaders in the fur and meat industries are fluent in this alternate language. Furriers routinely describe animals as succumbing to euthanasia -- a misuse of a word that literally means a mercy killing, done to alleviate the suffering of the killed (though animals in fur farms may well be living miserable enough lives to justify the usage). Serpell cites an edition of the British Meat Trades Journal published near his time of writing, advising meat purveyors to divorce their product from "the act of slaughter," by swapping out the words "butcher" and "slaughterhouse" with what Serpell calls "American euphemisms": "meat plant," "meat factory."

Even before the specter of government bans, shooters had their lingo. Centuries ago, British fox hunters developed synonyms for killing, some more chilling than the word itself: "bowled over," "rolled over," "brought to book," "punished," "dealt with," "accounted for." In a 2012 essay against the euphemistic creep in American hunting circles, Chris Eberhart, a bowhunter and outdoor writer in Michigan, described the surreality he experienced shooting in Germany:

German hunters never use the word blood. The euphemism for blood is the word sweat. And no animal is ever wounded by a German hunter. Instead, wounded game is described as sick. A non hunter could listen to two German hunters talk about wounding an animal and tracking and have absolutely no idea what they were talking about.

In contrast with the euphemisms of today -- intended to endear the public to the cause -- European code words came about expressly to exclude. Hunting was the sport of the elite, and elitism thrives on inside knowledge. As Eberhart points out, to regular folk in an old country, hunters speak an incomprehensible language.

American coding traces to a philosophical shift. The great early 20th-century environmentalist Aldo Leopold pioneered the idea of game as a kind of crop. The Rimfire Central debate ends on this note as well. Citing Leopold's 1933 book Game Management, the thread's final commenter writes that "effective communication means knowing your audience." Leopold, the commenter suggests, communicated effectively. From Game Management:

We have learned that game, to be successfully conserved, must be positively produced rather than negatively protected. We have learned that game is a crop, which Nature will grow and grow abundantly, provided only that we furnish the seed and a suitable environment.

This language is echoed by trophy hunters, who defend their actions as ultimately beneficial to the ecosystem. (Though Leopold, who changed his views on predator eradication by the end of his life, would surely disagree with them.) A favorite example is of the white rhino, a near-extinct species brought back from the brink, partly due to private South African landowners eager to entice wealthy Westerners to pay to shoot.

The case is provocative -- some estimates place the population's rise from 100 to 11,000 from 1960 to 2007 -- even while limited trophy hunting continued. But crediting hunting for the rise misrepresents the reality of the conservation effort, a multidimensional approach that has involved fertilization intervention by researchers, as well as sweeping limitations on poaching and, yes, hunting -- both activities of which were blamed for wiping the species' numbers down so low in the first place.

In the case of Walter Palmer, the underbelly of the word shows. What he calls "taking" has come to mean an explicit series of events. We know Palmer and a group of men baited a lion out of safe land with a dead animal strapped to a vehicle. The dentist shot the tricked animal with a bow, piercing Cecil's flesh. The group then stalked the wounded lion for 40 hours until Palmer had a second chance to shoot and kill (and claim) his paid-for trophy, this time with a rifle. One, some or all of the men beheaded and skinned the lion, trying before they left the body to rot to extract the tagged collar that proved their downfall. This, now, is "taking."

Unfortunately for Palmer, another word describes the operation: "poaching."

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