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What's Behind The Heartbreak For Cecil The Lion


This week, a dead lion dominated the news.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Worldwide outrage tonight over the death of Cecil the lion.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Officials say 55-year-old Walter Palmer shot Cecil.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: The hunt becomes the hunted. Dozens of protesters have gathered outside the office of American dentist Walter Palmer.



RATH: Plenty of comedians weighed in, too. On his late-night talk show, Jimmy Kimmel even got choked up.


JIMMY KIMMEL: If you want to make this into a positive, you can - sorry. I'm - OK, I'm good. Maybe we could show the world that not all Americans...

RATH: Writer and professor Hal Herzog has investigated our complex relationship with animals, so I asked him why all the uproar surrounding Cecil the lion?

HAL HERZOG: You had an animal that represented sometimes called the charismatic megafauna - big animals that we care about - you know, whales and lions and things like that. But you've got Cecil, who is a special case. He's particularly charismatic. He's almost iconic. He's almost like the lion king. One of the factors was Cecil had a name. In fact, when I see reports of this now, it's not just Cecil. It's Cecil the lion.

RATH: Researchers have studied the strength of this human bond to animals. And you wrote about one of these studies where people were asked about a hypothetical - a dog and a human are both in danger, and you could only save one.

HERZOG: Yeah, it was really interesting. It was researchers at Georgia Regents University. And they asked people, if there was a runaway bus, and it was headed toward a dog or a person, who would you save? And they varied several things, including who the person was. And it could be, for example, a foreign visitor, your best friend or, you know, your brother or sister. And then they varied whether the type of animal - was it a dog or your dog? And what they found - that ultimate case, which was your dog versus a foreign visitor, who you didn't know, that 40 percent of people said that they would save the dog over a person.

RATH: Wow.

HERZOG: Now, I'm not convinced that people would actually do that, but to me it shows the depth of the feelings that we have for the animals - at least, some of the animals - in our lives.

RATH: This - you know, this tendency that we have as humans to feel this way about animals - why? Is there any kind of evolutionary reason for it? I would we have this attitude?

HERZOG: Well, I think it's a combination of biology and culture, and I think there is a evolutionary, at least, backdrop. So for example, we tend to like certain animals - for example, animals with big eyes and that are cute, that remind us of human infants. But the other thing is that I think now that the role of culture plays a bigger role than biological evolution in our attitudes towards different animal species.

It's interesting to me that most of the people that are so outraged by this - and by the way, I'm outraged by it, too. But most of the people that are outraged eat animals, and 75 percent of Americans support hunting. This doesn't apply to everyone. So for example, I have a lot of friends that are animal activists. For many of them, their response to this was, hey, this was one lion. What about the 10 billion animals that we kill every year that live terrible lives for our dining pleasure?

RATH: That's Hal Herzog. His book is "Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard To Think Straight About Animals." Hal, thanks very much.

HERZOG: Oh, happy to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.