A big-game hunter from the Twin Cities found himself at the center of an international firestorm Tuesday over the death of a beloved lion in Zimbabwe, but said he regrets killing the animal and believed his guides were leading him on a legal hunt.
Walter J. Palmer of Eden Prairie, a practicing dentist in Bloomington and a prominent bow-and-arrow hunter, issued a statement addressing the killing on July 1 of Cecil, a lion that was a favorite among tourists and wildlife researchers.
“I hired several professional guides, and they secured all proper permits,” Palmer’s statement read. “To my knowledge, everything about this trip was legal and properly handled.
“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.”
Zimbabwe game officials said Tuesday that two of Palmer’s guides are facing charges in the incident and that they “are looking for Palmer.”
Palmer, 55, who pleaded guilty to a license violation after shooting a black bear in Wisconsin in 2008, said he has not been contacted by any authorities in Zimbabwe or the U.S., but added that he will cooperate with investigators. The public-relations firm that worked with Palmer on the statement said he was in the Twin Cities on Tuesday.
“Again, I deeply regret that my pursuit of an activity I love and practice responsibly and legally resulted in the taking of this lion,” the statement concluded.
Earlier Tuesday, the Telegraph newspaper of London identified Palmer as the hunter who shot Cecil and reported that he paid $54,000 for the hunt. The Telegraph said the lion was illegally lured out of Hwange National Park, where it had protected status, and onto a neighboring game farm, where Palmer was on safari.
Palmer’s dentist office on Rhode Island Avenue was closed Tuesday, apparently abruptly. One client showed up for an appointment, unaware of the global turmoil surrounding his dentist.
A profile on Palmer’s business website said that he is from North Dakota and that he graduated from the University of Minnesota dental school. He and his wife live in Eden Prairie, about 2½ miles from his practice. They have two children. A knock at the door Tuesday brought no response. A neighbor described the Palmers as very private.
As the Telegraph’s report and subsequent news coverage spread on the Internet, commenters took to the Facebook page of Palmer’s River Bluff Dental with a vengeance.
“You utter scum,” one of many hostile comments read. “You should be in jail, and you should hang your head in shame.” The Yelp page on Palmer’s dental practice was inundated with hostile comments, and by midevening, nearly 200,000 people had signed an online petition condemning the incident organized by an online group known as Care2.
Late Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., urged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of Justice to investigate whether the killing violated any endangered-species laws.
Chelsea Hassler, outreach director with the Twin Cities-based Animal Rights Coalition, said her group and “many outraged citizens” intend to protest outside Palmer’s office on Wednesday afternoon.
By late Tuesday afternoon, small stuffed lions had been left at Palmer’s home and dental office.
Lists 43 kills
Palmer’s kills are listed by an organization called Safari Club International, a big-game hunting group that claims 55,000 members worldwide, including about 1,000 in Minnesota.
The club keeps a detailed record book in which members display photos, measurements and other information about animals they have killed. Palmer lists 43 kills, all by bow and arrow. His list includes moose, deer, buffalo, a polar bear and a mountain lion.
A photo posted in the record book from 2005 shows him kneeling behind a lion, with his bow propped up against the animal. The book also documents with a photo that he shot an African elephant in Zimbabwe in 2013.
People familiar with the safari industry refused to comment Tuesday on Palmer’s case, but said it is normal for hunters to place themselves in the hands of hired guides and local outfitters.
Jeff Martinell of Troy, Pa., who books African trips as the owner of Luxury Hunts, said it’s up to the guides, also called professional hunters, to know the laws and regulations of a lion hunt, including whether the hunters are on preserve land or shooting at a protected animal.
“If he bought a lion hunt and they take him on a lion hunt, he [doesn’t] know where you’re going,” Martinell said. “The finger should be pointed at the professional hunter, not the hunter himself.”
Martinell also said it is common practice to lure big game with bait, apparently the tactic used in Cecil’s death. “You find a lion, put the bait out and wait for the lion to come in,” he said.
Bob Lange of rural Glenwood, Minn., has hunted in Zimbabwe five times, and once, at the government’s request, shot a lion that had killed six people.
While stressing that he is unfamiliar with the specifics of Palmer’s hunt and that he doesn’t know Palmer, Lange said the case appears typical of trophy hunting in Zimbabwe.
“If what I understand about the hunt is accurate, nothing seems unusual or illegal about it,” Lange said, “unless the landowner didn’t have a hunting permit. But if that was the case, you, the hunter, would have no way to know. You’re in the outfitter’s hands.”
Guilty plea in Wisconsin
The incident is not Palmer’s first brush with authorities.
In 2008, he pleaded guilty in federal court in Wisconsin to misleading a federal agent in connection with the hunting of a black bear. Two years earlier, Palmer had killed a bear near Phillips, in Price County. That location was 40 miles outside of the zone where he held a permit to hunt bear.
Palmer and others transported the bear carcass to a registration station inside the allowed hunting zone, according to court documents, and at the station, he falsely certified that the bear had been killed in the legal zone. Facing a maximum penalty of five years in prison, Palmer was sentenced to one year’s probation and fined nearly $3,000.
In the spring of 2003, Palmer was convicted in Otter Tail County in western Minnesota and paid a small fine for fishing without a license, a misdemeanor.
And in 2009, Palmer agreed to a settlement with the Minnesota Board of Dentistry over allegations that he sexually harassed a receptionist. She alleged that Palmer made comments about her breasts, buttocks and genitalia.
Without admitting guilt, Palmer settled and paid $127,500 to the woman, who also was his patient.
The settlement included references to his bear-hunting conviction and “substandard record keeping.”
The Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority and the Safari Operators Association of Zimbabwe said Tuesday that a local guide and a farm owner are facing poaching charges and that they are expected in court Wednesday.
“Both the professional hunter and land owner had no permit or quota to justify the offtake of the lion and therefore are liable for the illegal hunt,” the joint statement said. It did not address any legal consequences for Palmer.
The statement said Theo Bronkhorst, a professional guide with Bushman Safaris, is believed to have lured the lion to Honest Trymore Ndlovu’s farm, where it was killed. Its carcass was discovered days later by trackers, the statement said.
During a nighttime pursuit, the hunters tied a dead animal to their car to lure the lion out of the national park, said Johnny Rodrigues, chairman of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force. Palmer shot the lion with a bow and arrow, injuring it. The wounded lion was found 40 hours later and shot dead with a gun, Rodrigues said in the statement.
The lion was skinned and beheaded.
The hunters tried to destroy the lion’s collar, fitted with a tracking device, but failed, the statement said. Zimbabwe authorities said in their statement that the “lion trophy has been confiscated.”
“The saddest part of all is that now that Cecil is dead, the next lion in the hierarchy, Jericho, will most likely kill all Cecil’s cubs,” Rodrigues said.
The conservation group said Cecil, recognizable by his black mane, was part of an Oxford University research program. Tourists regularly spotted his characteristic mane in the park over the past 13 years, said LionAid, also a conservation group.
In 2009, the New York Times featured Palmer in a report from northern California, where Palmer was hunting elk. He told the newspaper that he can hit a playing card from 100 yards with his compound bow and that he eschews bringing a firearm as a backup.
“I don’t have a golf game,” he said of his devotion to hunting, adding that he learned to shoot at age 5.
Star Tribune staff writers Pat Pheifer, Jennifer Bjorhus, Mary Lynn Smith and the Associated Press contributed to this report. Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482