In late July, social media feeds worldwide erupted over the death of Cecil the lion, who was killed by Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer during a trophy hunting expedition in Zimbabwe.
By now, much of the social media furor over the lion has died down, but Cecil's death has raised many important questions about the nature of activism and our collective response to injustice in our own backyards and around the world.
We all remember that week in July when you couldn't turn on the TV or log onto Facebook without hearing about Cecil's tragic killing. And the outcry wasn't just limited to your circle of friends: over one million people signed a Care2 petition demanding justice for the lion, calling on the Zimbabwean government to ban trophy hunting.
The petition demanding justice for Cecil was the fastest growing petition Care2 has ever hosted, gathering tens of thousands of signatures per hour. The flood of signatures spurned hundreds of news stories around the globe, helping to amplify the message petition signers were conveying and to inform and engage people around the world.
The massive outcry was evidence of a huge cultural shift: an age of compassion. While many have criticized the backlash directed at Palmer, the outrage has also shown us that, when channeled constructively, our anger can create a movement that fuels positive change.
Petitions play a vital role in a democratic society. They enable us to challenge systemic issues that allow injustices to manifest, and afford us the ability to speak out regardless of class, race, gender identity, religion, disability, political affiliation, or sexual orientation.
Petitions also break through the gridlocked legislative process, getting results when government can't, or won't, act. They enable people to engage in society and create impact previously only seen through mass street demonstrations and strikes.
While legislatures have debated hunting regulations for decades, it was an individual citizen who started the Cecil petition on Care2, leading to international uproar. The flood of signatures on the petition and accompanying outcry are good reminders that participating in the democratic process doesn't mean waiting for the next election. Ultimately, citizens have the power. One of the great forces fueling that shift comes from online petition sites that allow us to collectively, and very publicly, express our desire to make a difference.
These petitions are also driving new national conversations. Cecil's death gave us the opportunity to challenge trophy hunting as a "sport," and elected officials and corporations around the world are paying attention.
Within days of the Cecil story breaking, the uproar spurred a series of related petitions targeting other institutions with influence in the trophy hunting industry -- and they worked. After over 157,000 signed a petition asking Delta Airlines to stop transporting hunting trophies, the airline announced it had officially banned the practice. Shortly after, American Airlines, United Airlines and Air Canada announced they had joined Delta in banning trophies.
The petition demanding justice for Cecil was successful, too. It asked Zimbabwe to stop issuing permits for trophy hunting, and government officials heard the call loud and clear. Sure enough, on August 1, the country temporarily banned big game hunting in the area surrounding Hwange National Park, where Cecil was shot.
The outcry surrounding Cecil also forced Palmer to temporarily shut down his dental practice. And last year, a student at a private high school in Tennessee started a petition that attracted over 108,000 signatures forcing the school to remove an African safari hunt from its annual fundraising auction.
The message is clear: whether you're a business, a school, or a legislative body, people do not want to associate with institutions that violate their personal values. Public opinion matters, and citizens are exerting their collective power through the very public stage of online petitions more than ever before. The power is in the hands of the people.
Cecil's death and the reaction to it has raised awareness about trophy hunting more than any other campaign in recent memory, and the impact will reverberate for years. Palmer may have paid $55,000 to hunt and kill Cecil, but that amount pales in comparison to the donations the viral outrage spurred for organizations like World Wildlife Fund, African Wildlife Foundation, and Oxford University's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit.
The hunting lobby is fighting back, attempting to convince the public that trophy hunting funds are key to conservation efforts (although the facts don't support that). But the flood of donations ensured these organizations will continue to pursue conservation efforts for years to come.
As the uproar surrounding Cecil's petition continues to ripple around the world, it shows the rising desire from people across the globe to right wrongs and move society in line with their values. Petitions offer a constructive outlet for this desire. The results can be extraordinary.