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Are Dentist Stereotypes Driving Rage over Cecil the Lion?

At the end of July, the Internet erupted in rage over the death of Cecil the lion, a local favorite who was participating in a research study. Although the lion was popular among locals, he was largely unknown outside Zimbabwe before his death.

And when it emerged that the lion had not only been killed, but killed illegally by an American dentist, outrage grew. The man’s website was overwhelmed. His office was picketed. His homes were vandalized and his family received death threats. Fearing for his life, the dentist has gone into hiding and has even hired private security to protect himself and his family.

Certainly, there are questions surrounding the death of Cecil the lion, and if it does turn out that dentist Walter Palmer did conduct the killing illegally, he needs to be dentists that make it easy for people to believe the worst about Dr. Palmer.

Stereotypes of Dentists

Cecil Lion DentistTo determine what our culture thinks of dentists, we have only to look at popular representations of them in mass media. Dentists are often cast as villains because they are seen as sadistic. We need only look at Orin Scrivello, DDS from Little Shop of Horrors or Dr. Christian Szell from Marathon Man to see what pop culture thinks of dentists.

Or maybe we should look at a more recent representation like Dr. Jeremy Jamm from Parks and Recreation. Dr. Jamm is an orthodontist whose cynical approach to life and politics is portrayed as the antithesis of everything that could be good about our government. By embodying two of our culture’s most hated types–dentists and corrupt politicians–Dr. Jamm became the villain everyone loved to hate.

And even when dentists are portrayed in a more positive light, they are still seen as lacking humanity. Consider Bertram Pincus in Ghost Town, who begins as a craven and uncaring human being.

Stereotypes Inform Perception of Cecil’s Death

When we look at how people are responding to Cecil’s death, we can see how these stereotypes make the dentist seem worse.

For example, much is made of the fact that the lion was lured from a preserve into a place where he could be shot. Many people put the guilt for this act on Dr. Palmer, but if we look at his statement, we note the extent to which he relied on his local guides to make sure the hunt was legal. Whether this was wise or not (it turns out the guides didn’t secure the permits as Dr. Palmer thought), it is common to trust hired professional guides to handle permits when you visit a foreign country.

People also portray Dr. Palmer as a sadist for the way he killed Cecil, shooting him once with his crossbow, then tracking him before making the final kill shot. But this isn’t fair, because it’s an unfortunate reality of bowhunting that the bow rarely kills the animal with the first shot. It is typically necessary to track the animal and kill it later.

Stories often link the killing of Cecil with the likelihood that Cecil’s children will be killed when when a new lion takes over the pride, as if to put it on Dr. Palmer. But this isn’t Dr. Palmer’s fault–it’s the law of the jungle, and it’s important for us to remember that Cecil likely killed the children of his rival when he took over the pride.

Dr. Palmer’s actions may be despicable, but he, his wife, and his children are still human, and they deserve to be treated so. At the very least, let them remain innocent until they are found guilty in a court of law.