The furor surrounding a Twin Cities big-game hunter continued to mount Wednesday, as protesters swarmed his Bloomington dental office and a leading Zimbabwe conservationist said Walter J. Palmer should return to Africa to explain his killing of a beloved research lion.
“People should be accountable for whatever crimes, whatever the case is,” Johnny Rodrigues, chairman of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, said in an interview with the Star Tribune. Rodrigues said it is “imperative that Palmer face justice.”
Separately, U.S. wildlife regulators said they will assist Zimbabwe authorities in their investigation of the shooting of the lion, known widely and affectionately as Cecil. Palmer has not been charged in Zimbabwe, although his guide and outfitter have.
Also Wednesday, Safari Club International, a global organization of big-game hunters, said it was suspending Palmer’s membership and that of his Zimbabwe-based guide.
“Safari Club International supports a full and thorough investigation of the circumstances surrounding the death of Cecil the lion,” the group said in a prepared statement. “SCI supports only legal hunting practices … and believes that those who intentionally take wildlife illegally should be prosecuted and punished to the maximum extent allowed by law.”
In Zimbabwe, the guide hired by Palmer appeared in court on Wednesday on charges of failing to prevent an illegal hunt and was released on $1,000 bail.
Reached Wednesday morning, Palmer said he had no additional comment since a statement released Tuesday. But in a note to his dental patients, he said his practice is closed for now because of disruptions by the “substantial number of calls and comments from people who are angered by this situation and by the practice of hunting in general.”
The note added: “I don’t often talk about hunting with my patients because it can be a divisive and emotionally charged topic. I understand and respect that not everyone shares the same views on hunting.”
Palmer, 55, a prominent bow hunter and safari enthusiast, acknowledged Tuesday that he shot Cecil with a bow and arrow on July 1. Palmer said in a statement that he thought at the time that the kill was legal, but that he had no idea he was shooting a prized research animal and deeply regrets it.
The lion lived in Hwange National Park, where it had protected status and was collared as part of a long-term study. He became a favorite among tourists and a point of pride for the southern African nation.
Lawyers who specialize in wildlife law said Wednesday they doubt that Palmer faces legal trouble under U.S. law (see accompanying article), but federal officials confirmed that they are investigating.
Laury Marshall Parramore, spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said her agency is deeply concerned about the incident. “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 Fish and Wildlife Service and the Justice Department to investigate whether the killing violated any U.S. laws or regulations.
‘Don’t hunt me’
Outside Palmer’s office in Bloomington on Wednesday, about a dozen police officers sealed off traffic from a block of Rhode Island Avenue, hours ahead of a demonstration scheduled for 1 p.m. About a half-dozen demonstrators were on hand in the early afternoon, while others drove by to observe.
A Bloomington mother brought her two young children to the protest. Her 3-year-old wore a lion’s costume and a sign that read: “Protect Me, Don’t Hunt Me.”
A verbal altercation broke out moments after someone posted a sign on the door of Palmer’s office that read “Rot in hell” in big black letters.
Wanda Palmer, who said she’s no relation to the dentist, said the sign could incite violence. “Love has to win,” she said. “If you committed a horrible sin, I would have mercy on you. I wouldn’t send you to hell.”
About the same time, two of Palmer’s dental patients appeared, saying they dropped by out of curiosity.
Rick Torney of Bloomington said that he has been a patient for about 20 years and that he knew Palmer was a big-game hunter but never thought much of it. “I think he trusted these [guides],” Torney said. “He seemed to believe they had all the necessary permits.
“I would go back to him,” Torney added. “He’s one heck of a dentist. But my wife — she thinks we should find a new dentist.”
Jim Ruchie of Eden Prairie took a different view. “He’s a good guy, a family guy. I just don’t agree with what he did. I will never come back here.”
A second demonstration, at 4 p.m., drew a larger crowd of about 250 protesters.
“Trophy hunters should go extinct,” said Kevin Wollersheim of Hopkins. “That’s why I came.”
Paul Runze, a retired Hastings resident, said that he visits Africa two to three times a year and that he has taken video and photos of Cecil. “I can’t understand what drives a man to take a life, to take a trophy,” Runze said. “If you’re shooting pheasants to eat, that’s OK. Nobody eats rhinos.”
Asked what it was like the first time he saw Cecil:
“It was a magical moment when Cecil made eye contact.”
Guide surrenders passport
In Zimbabwe, the professional guide employed by Palmer made his first court appearance in Hwange, about 435 miles west of the capital, Harare.
Theo Bronkhorst, 52, a guide with Bushman Safaris, appeared before magistrate Lindiwe Maphosa, charged with failing to prevent the illegal hunting of the lion. Conservationists initially thought Bronkhorst would face a tougher poaching charge, which can draw a fine of $20,000 or 10 years’ imprisonment.
Bronkhorst was remanded on $1,000 bail. Maphosa did not ask Bronkhorst to enter a plea, but ordered him to surrender his passport and report three times a week to police.
Bronkhorst is due back in court next week.
The prosecutor, Namatirai Ngwasha, told the court that Bronkhorst, whose hunting license was revoked on Tuesday, failed to prevent Palmer from shooting Cecil to death. The lion was not listed for hunting on Bushman Safaris’ hunting quota, Ngwasha said.
Prosecutors noted that Cecil had been collared for a research project on lions in the wild, and said the animal’s head and pelt, left near the scene of the killing, have been confiscated and would be presented to court as evidence.
Palmer has not been charged in the proceedings.
Zimbabwe wildlife officials say the lion was killed after a nighttime pursuit during which the hunters tied a dead animal to their car as bait to lure it out of the national park. Palmer shot the lion with a bow and arrow, injuring it. The hunting party found the wounded lion 40 hours later and shot it dead with a gun, Rodrigues said.
The prosecutor, Ngwasha, said Wednesday that researchers became concerned on July 1, when the GPS collar showed Cecil uncharacteristically stationary. A report was made to police, and Cecil’s carcass was discovered days later by trackers.
In addition, the owner of the game farm where Palmer was hunting was charged on Wednesday with allowing an illegal hunt and is scheduled to appear in court on Thursday.
A prolific hunter
Palmer, who has been hunting big game for many years, had been listed in a record book compiled by Safari Club International, which claims 55,000 members worldwide. The club’s record book lists 43 kills by Palmer, all by bow and arrow. His list includes moose, deer, buffalo, a polar bear and a mountain lion.
Though he is known in hunting circles as a skilled bowman, Palmer has also run afoul of the law at least twice over the years, with a guilty plea and fine in 2008 for misleading federal authorities about a bear he killed illegally in Wisconsin and for fishing without a license in Minnesota’s Otter Tail County.
Staff writer Pat Pheifer, the Associated Press and special correspondent Thulani Mpofu contributed to this report.
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482
Brandon Stahl • 612-673-4626