Missing Cecil

Recently, the internet was dominated by stories of a large lion named Cecil. Did you hear the roar? Or at least the uproar?

Cecil was apparently a popular figure among tourists and researchers in Zimbabwe. This summer, however, he was lured away from the wildlife sanctuary in which he normally resides, and he was subsequently shot by a recreational big-game hunter (a dentist) from the United States. When the story came to light in the media, public outcry was significant. 1.2 million people around the world signed a “Justice for Cecil” petition online, urging the Zimbabwean government toward policy chage. The hunter’s personal and professional websites and social media accounts were inundated and overwhelmed by internet trolls. The hunter’s dental practice itself was shut down. Airlines came out with statements announcing new policies to prohibit transport of of big-game hunting trophies (whether or not they had much to do with such transport prior to the incident). It was quite a big deal.

I confess that I didn’t follow the story very closely, but I could understand the intrigue. There were conservation overtones to the coverage, of course, but there were colonial overtones as well: a rich white foreigner plundering Africa’s natural treasures. And just on the aesthetic level, few creatures hold the power and prestige of a lion: the “King of the Jungle.” So there were stories all across the internet about the incident itself… and stories about public outrage about the incident… and stories about outrage over the levels of outrage about the incident (i.e. “If people care so much about Cecil the Lion, why don’t they care more about _______?”).

So anyway, here’s my real point: How much time and space did the story of Cecil the Lion take up in our collective consciousness?

I’m not talking about the actual dates on which the events took place and the stories were picked up; I’m talking about how BIG the story felt. Didn’t it feel world-wide? Didn’t it seem to play out over several weeks (if not months)? Didn’t it seem like a vital matter of American-African relations?

So here’s the crazy thing to me: My sister just got back from a two-week trip to Africa, and she didn’t hear a thing about Cecil the Lion until a family conversation over lunch yesterday. The story had not yet become “a thing” before her departure at the end of July. It never came up among any of the Americans or Africans who interacted with my sister throughout the course of her time on the continent (even though she was hanging out with some very highly-educated, internationally-minded, tech-savvy people). And since her return to North America, the story has already ebbed enough that it’s escaped her attention. That means the entire rise, climax, and fall of the stories surrounding Cecil the Lion were easily contained within a two-week period. Probably even within a single week, since it seems to me that it’s been awhile since I’ve heard anything either. For a couple of days, it filled our collective consciousness. And then, quite suddenly: it didn’t.

The story of Cecil the Lion felt HUGE, but it didn’t even register a blip on the radar of my sister, who missed the story entirely by being less-than-fully connected to the internet on a two-week trip — to Africa, of all places!

I’m still fascinated by the way the internet spreads information and opinions. It really is pretty remarkable to consider how trends are set, how memes rise and fall, and how quickly public opinion can be shifted and shaped in today’s connected world. Somehow, this window into the Cecil story helped me to gain some perspective on all this.

When one hears a roar, it doesn’t always mean there’s a real lion in the neighborhood. But it doesn’t mean there isn’t, either.

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