The last of the big game hunters

Paul Constant

August 03, 2015

If you’ve spent any amount of time on the internet in the last week or so, you know that Dr. Walter Palmer, a dentist from Minnesota, shot and killed a celebrity lion named Cecil on July 1st of this year in Zimbabwe. Palmer’s actions inspired the internet to recoil in outrage; he was doxxed almost immediately and had to go into hiding when people began plastering the front of his business with shaming messages and threats.

“Dr. Palmer needs a deep cleaning,” one sign taped to the front of Palmer’s office read. Another warned, “I want to fill your ethical cavities.” Jimmy Kimmel teared up on his late-night talk show, addressing Palmer directly: “If you’re some a-hole dentist who wants a lion’s head over the fireplace in his man-cave so his douchebag buddies can gather around it and drink Scotch and tell him how awesome he is, that’s just vomitous.”

One of the only people to publicly defend Palmer is Kirkland’s Dennis Dunn, the father of King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn. The elder Dunn, himself a big-game hunter, was quoted by the Seattle Times’s Walker Orenstein as saying that “The trophy hunter really should be regarded as the saint amongst hunters.” He complained that trophy hunters get “a bum rap in this world,” and characterized Palmer as “a very driven man … [who] lives an intense, fast-paced life.”

At the same time, animal rights activists have expressed dismay at the fact that one lion has earned this kind of disgust from nearly every corner of society, while countless animals are inhumanely slaughtered every day in every nation on earth.

Much of this revulsion (and counter-revulsion, and backlash to the revulsion) is a knee-jerk response to the death of a named animal, an animal with an identified personality. But creeping underneath it all is the shocked realization that big-game hunting still exists. The story of Cecil’s death is emblematic of more than just the tortured final hours of one beautiful creature; it reminded the world that rich white men still pay ridiculous amounts of money to go to Africa to kill giant animals, and that the racist, colonialist tradition of big-game hunting still persists now, in 2015. It’s a tradition we’ve tried hard to forget over the past few decades.

But not too long ago, we praised these so-called Great White Hunters as macho ideals. We loved their stories. Bookstores used to have sections for big-game hunting narratives; we bought their books and made them bestsellers. Reading these books today reminds us that we are only a couple decades away from the time when Palmer would be regarded by many as a hero.

John Tinney McCutcheon’s 1910 memoir In Africa: Hunting Adventures in the Big Game Country is one of the earliest big-game hunting narratives I could find on Google Books. Dedicated “to those adventurous souls who resent the restraint of the beaten path,” McCutcheon’s account of four months in Africa is amateurish in almost every sense of the word. He’s an admitted hunting novice, a bored socialite who decided to follow in Theodore Roosevelt’s footsteps; he even joins Roosevelt on an elephant hunt in the book. Roosevelt’s well-publicized hunting adventures kicked off a big-game fad in the American elite, and McCutcheon exemplifies the dilettantish trophy hunters who gallumphed off in his footsteps, in search of the biggest adventure money could buy.

“There is no treasure to search for any more,” McCutcheon laments early in the book, “and the golden age of the splendid clipper ships, with their immense spread of canvas, has given way to the unromantic age of the grimy steamer, about which there is so little to appeal to the imagination. Consequently, lion hunting is about the only thing left — except wars, and they are few and far between.”

McCutcheon’s prose is lifeless and drenched in an unctuous faux-humility, but if you want to learn what trophy hunting was like at the dawn of the 20th century, you’ll not likely find a more straightforward account than In Africa. He describes the entire process, from going to zoos and museums of natural history to scout his prey…

…we carefully studied many of the animals that we hoped to meet later under less formal conditions. We picked out the vital spots, as seen from all angles, and nothing then remained to be done but to get down to British East Africa with our rifles and see whether we could hit those vital spots

…to his long journey to Africa, during which he met others in the big-game trade…

There was a professional elephant hunter on board. He was a quiet, reserved sort of man, pleasant, and not at all bloodthirsty in appearance. He had spent twenty years shooting in Africa, and had killed three hundred elephants

…to the many rules of trophy hunting:

The Belgians place no limit upon the number of elephants one may shoot, just so they get their rake-off. In British territory, however, sportsmen are limited to only two elephants a year to those holding licenses to shoot.

Along the way, McCutcheon lovingly describes a dog who begins to hang around his camp. McCutcheon spends a whole chapter lovingly describing the dog’s friendship and loyalty. “His table manners were above reproach,” he begins. “He would never grab or show unseemly greed. He awaited our pleasure and each bone or chop that fell his way was received with every token of mute but eloquent gratitude. You were constantly made to feel that he loved you for yourself and not for what he hoped you would give him.”

McCutcheon never finds those warm words to describe the local African guides he hires to take him out on safari; at best, he praises their “crude intelligence.” And there were plenty of them: “Each white man,” McCutcheon writes, “requires, roughly, thirty natives to take care of him. In our party of four white people we had one hundred and eighteen.” The guides are paid anywhere from twenty-five dollars American (for the “head-man and the four gunbearers”) to four dollars a month (for the porters and other load-bearers) for their trouble. “The general average of health in the safari was high,” McCutcheon boasts. “Only one porter died in the four months or more that we were out.”

The hunting itself is described in gory detail, but the worst bits are often dropped offhandedly: “It is always the desire of collectors who kill groups of animals for museums to kill the calf and the mother at the same time whenever practicable, so that neither one is left to mourn the loss of the other.”

When McCutcheon shoots at his first lion, he admits to “a great thrill of exultation.” He continues, “Already I saw the handsomely mounted lion-skin rug ornamenting my den at home.” But not every animal is worthy of being taxidermied into a trophy. When Roosevelt shoots a female elephant that is determined to be too small to preserve, the body is divided into parts as souvenirs of the trip: “We each got a foot, fifteen square feet of skin, and one of the ears was saved for [Roosevelt].”

McCutcheon is the worst kind of tourist, a man who has no interest in learning from the land he’s visiting. (The long list of items he brings with him on safari includes two pairs of flannel pajamas and a complete set of china.) All he wants is his trophies — delivered to him entirely through the expertise of his guides, of course — and an array of stories to tell the boys at the country club back home. To call him oblivious would be an understatement; he’s a man who is willfully resistant to empathy, who is only interested in glorifying himself by devaluing any and all life he encounters. In Africa’s 500 pages of butchered animals is the grisliest thing I’ve read in a long time, made worse by McCutcheon’s chipper tendency to self-mythologize at the expense of the dozens of men working thanklessly in his service. In other words, it’s the story of empire, as told by the empire.

It’s easy to look at McCutcheon’s story — published more than a century ago, after all — and pretend that it in no way resembles modern life. But McCutcheon is just one of the first narrators in a tradition that stretches across the 20th century. There’s Hemingway, of course, and the appropriately named J.A. Hunter’s memoir Hunter, published in 1952. (Hunter also co-authored a book called White Hunter and a history of the white men who first came to Africa titled Tales of the African Frontier.) The list continues all the way to a man named Peter Hathaway Capstick, a popular hunting memoirist whose paperback Death in the Dark Continent was published in 1983.

Capstick, a former Wall Street trader, published a large shelf’s worth of books about his hunting adventures between 1960 and his death (by complications from heart surgery; not by horn or claw or trampling) in 1996. He found his authorial formula and stuck to it, with titles like Death in a Lonely Land, Death in the Silent Places, and Death in the Long Grass. His books were beloved by many, often earning book-of-the-month-club selections and positive reviews praising his vivid imagery.

And he was absolutely insufferable. Capstick is a braggart, from the first page to the last. He relentlessly brags about the animals he’s killed, the gallons of alcohol he drinks, and the countless people he’s outsmarted. He believes he’s funnier than he is, and he loves a florid metaphor, whether it works or not. On the first page of Dark Continent, he ponders which animal is the deadliest.

Sorting out the relative deadliness of the African plug-ugliest who will happily include you on their dance cards if you step on their toes is rather like determining the comparative merits of blond, brunette, and redheaded ladies. All are potentially deadly, but some a bit more than others, depending upon local conditions.

When Capstick refers to an anonymous African man in his stories, he calls the man “the black.” While McCutcheon at least made an effort to learn local languages to add color to his stories, Capstick renames his two most loyal employees “Invisible” and “Silent,” which he clearly considers to be the two best qualities an African man can demonstrate.

Just about every other hunter Capstick encounters, in his own estimation, is a fool. Here’s an anecdote about a man who misjudged a sleeping elephant:

A fellow pro I once did a safari with won a sort of dubious immortality among the brethren by presuming that a snoozing Njovu, as they are called in Zambia, was dead. He actually got up to a standing position on the bum of the dozing bull before he realized the impropriety of his ways. Luckily, the jumbo apparently thought him a bad dream and spared him the first instructions of the recipe for creamed bwana. Coincidentally, the pro in question was killed two years later because of a much lesser transgression against another elephant. I wasn’t there, but I was told that what was left could have been shipped back to Europe in not much more than a padded mailer. One must perforce admire the thoroughness of the irritated Loxodonta.

While McCutcheon is a frustrating narrator, Capstick is an exasperating one. Though he published Dark Continent two decades before the popularization of the terms “mansplaining” and “manspreading,” it’s impossible to read the book now without picturing Capstick, his legs spread wide in some plush leather chair, telling you everything he believes you don’t understand about everything. The book is easy enough to read, but your brain will be aching for a loofah afterwards.

Ultimately, these stories are all the same. Some few wealthy men demonstrate a certain kind of sadness particular only to their kind. It’s an emptiness, a desperation, a need to be noticed. So they’ll spend fortunes on flashy cars or new wings of museums or vanity presidential campaigns. But even that kind of fame is fleeting. People may stare at ostentatious wealth, but enjoyment of envy only lasts for so long. The desire for respect remains unquenched.

Once you can’t buy attention any more, once you learn that sticking your name on a hospital or a hotel or a yacht doesn’t earn you real admiration, what do you do? You begin to crave experience. You turn your eye to a part of the world where your money buys something resembling real respect, and the laws are lax enough that you can will your darkest desires into reality. You have the opportunity to go somewhere beautiful, to trample the dirt of distant lands, and to find an awe-inspiring creature, and to kill it just so you can watch it breathe its last breath.

Less than two decades after Capstick’s death, a dentist named Walter Palmer is somewhere out here in the world, cowering away from angry Twitterers. At some point early in his development, Palmer presumably aspired to the anachronistic promises of manliness that Capstick and Hunter and McCutcheon and Hemingway and Roosevelt popularized. And in some respect, Palmer has succeeded. His story is McCutcheon’s story, or Capstick’s story. He has finally become the hunter he longed to be, and he must be shocked to discover that the world loathes him for it.

Books in this review:
  • Death in the Dark Continent
    by Peter Hathaway Capstick

    January 01, 1983
    238 pages
    Purchased by SRoB
    Buy online
  • In Africa
    by John Tinney McCutcheon

    January 01, 1910
    404 pages
    Gifted by non-conflicting partner
    Read on Google Books

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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