The Twin Cities big-game hunter who killed a much-beloved lion in Zimbabwe during what has been called a poaching expedition ended several weeks of silence Sunday and said he will resume his Bloomington dental practice Tuesday morning in hopes of getting his professional and personal life back on track.
Walter J. Palmer, of Eden Prairie, meeting face to face in Minneapolis with two reporters for his first interview since Cecil the lion’s death, fielded questions for 20 minutes about his safari hunt in early July and the passionate worldwide condemnation that has compelled him to keep a low profile.
The 55-year-old Bloomington dentist, who has yet to be charged with a crime, on Sunday also reaffirmed what he has said since he was identified by London news media six weeks ago as the hunter who took down Cecil with a compound bow: that the hunt was legal and that he and the others in his party had no clue that the lion was the revered 13-year-old with the distinctive black mane.
Palmer declined to address whether he would abide by any request, either informal or through extradition proceedings, to return to Zimbabwe to answer legal allegations.
"I have a lot of staff members at River Bluff Dental. I’m a little heartbroken at the disruption in their lives, and I’m a health professional," said the casually dressed Palmer, calm and all business, during the back and forth as attorney Joe Friedberg and a public relations consultant flanked him in what the dentist said would be his only media availability.
"I need to get back to treating my patients," the dentist continued. "My staff and my patients support me, and they want me back. That’s why I’m back. I’ll be coming back this week."
When Palmer was asked about the hunt itself, he cited his initial statement in defense of his actions, while Friedberg said, “Everything was done properly. This was a legal hunt for a lion in Zimbabwe. And because of the professionalism of the people who had to help him, a lion was taken.”
Palmer would only say that he wounded the lion, tracked it and finished it off with another arrow in far less time than the 40 hours cited in earlier news accounts.
As for where the dentist has been since the Telegraph newspaper of London broke the news that it was Palmer who felled Cecil, he said, “I’ve been out of the public eye, and I've been seeing family and friends,” characterizing his time as similar to what he might typically do on a day off from the office.
Palmer said he was not in hiding, as some media outlets in the U.S. and overseas had stated, adding that he has kept his profile low because of “some safety issues” for his family.
“It's been especially hard on my wife and daughter,” he said, at times with his forearms on the conference table and hands folded in front of him, other times leaning back, listening intently.
“They’ve been threatened ... in the social media, and again … I don’t understand that level of humanity to come after people not involved at all.”
Friedberg said he is an unpaid consultant to the dentist and nothing more, because Palmer “doesn’t need a lawyer” until a government — either Zimbabwean or U.S. — makes a legal claim.
The prominent Twin Cities defense attorney said Palmer "would receive the proper advice as to what to do. But again, he and I, after a little bit of looking ... we have no reason at this point to believe that’s going to happen."
Until Sunday, Palmer’s only public utterances about the hunt came early on in the form of a written statement to the news media and an e-mailed update about the fate of his dental practice sent to his patients explaining in general terms his role in the death of Cecil, a tourist favorite and the subject of academic research.
Palmer said Sunday that he and his safari partners did not know that he had taken a lion that was so dear to Zimbabweans and others. The tracking collar could not be seen during the nighttime hunt amid the animal’s full mane, he said, adding that it is not illegal to take a collared lion.
Zimbabwean authorities said they want Palmer extradited to face charges, though legal experts have raised doubts that such a diplomatic act would occur for a suspected wildlife crime. Officials of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) said weeks ago that they were investigating Cecil’s killing, but they’ve revealed nothing further since that announcement.
Friedberg said Sunday that he quickly brought Palmer’s plight to the attention of Andrew Luger, the U.S. attorney for Minnesota, and informed the USFWS that he was acting on the dentist’s behalf. Since those first few days, no federal agency has sought to contact Palmer, Friedberg added.
A skilled marksman and accomplished big game hunter, Palmer paid a hefty sum for the guided safari hunt outside of Hwange National Park. Authorities in Zimbabwe allege that Cecil was lured from the national park onto a neighboring farm. Palmer said Sunday that reports that he paid $50,000 for the hunt were wrong, but he did not say whether he paid more or less than that amount.
There’s been no confirmation of what became of Cecil’s corpse, and Palmer was not ready to go into detail about the hunt.
Relied on guides
Even after Sunday’s interview, Palmer’s initial written statement offers the greatest detail about what happened. It read in part, “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 relied on the expertise of my local professional guides to ensure a legal hunt.” He went on to express his “regret” for what happened but added that his actions were legal.
The guide, Theo Bronkhorst, and the property owner, Honest Trymore Ndlovu, have been charged with participating in an illegal hunt and could face prison if convicted. Bronkhorst has said, “We had done everything above board.”
The lion’s death unleashed a torrent of condemnation around the globe. Late-night television host Jimmy Kimmel fought back tears on the air. Famed wild animal researcher Jane Goodall said she was “shocked and outraged” by Palmer’s “incomprehensible” act. And Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton weighed in, saying, “I don’t understand how anybody thinks that’s a sport. I just think it is horrible.”
Bloomington clinic reopened
Protesters, among them children in lion costumes, swarmed Palmer’s shuttered Bloomington dental office the day after Cecil’s death was revealed. Within a few weeks, the office reopened, but with Palmer still absent.
Bloomington Police Deputy Chief Mike Hartley said Sunday night that “we’re not going to dedicate personnel” upon Palmer’s return [Tuesday]. We still have a security camera out in the lot there. We knew, eventually, he was going to return.”
African trophy hunting quickly came under attack by various news commentators and stirred new animal welfare activists. Some international airlines said they would no longer ship certain big game that had been taken during hunts on the continent.
Those who dared speak publicly in Palmer’s defense have been few, in part out of worry for their own safety against the harshest of Palmer’s critics. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals called for his hanging.
Zimbabwe’s first lady, Grace Mugabe, insisted that Palmer “be left alone,” and President Robert Mugabe has pinned the blame on his citizens for failing to protect Cecil. A few fellow Minnesota big-game hunters have spoken up for what they see as an honorable pursuit that helps finance conservation efforts and is vital to the African continent’s economy.
Not helping Palmer, at least in the public’s perception, is his guilty plea in 2008 for misleading federal authorities about a bear he killed illegally in Wisconsin. He was put on probation and fined. He also was convicted of a misdemeanor for fishing without a license in Minnesota’s Otter Tail County.
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482