Kristen Lindsey, Walter Palmer, and the Discernment of Online Vigilantes

cecilThe killing of Cecil the lion earlier this week by American dentist Walter J. Palmer got me thinking about Kristen Lindsey, the young Texas veterinarian who earlier this year exercised the tragically stupid impulse to post a photo of herself on Facebook with the corpse of a cat she had shot with an arrow. In both cases, the roar of outrage from social media was immediate and deafening. Both cat killers have been doxed, received countless death threats, and have seemingly gone into hiding. And who can blame them? The online public is not ready to hear their apologies—let alone any explanations or exculpatory details. If there is one thing a mob doesn’t need, it’s facts. Facts are pesty little obstacles that tend to slow down the momentum of the story they tell themselves. And, in these cases, it’s all about the story.

The story of Kristen Lindsey, however, is (or at least might be) a shade more understandable than that of Walt the Lion Killer. I believe it to be. Yet I’ve observed that her treatment by the social media outrage machine has been even worse than his. Already, I’m starting to see posts crop up here and there suggesting that, regardless of our feelings about the dentist’s actions and motives, it doesn’t serve the dead lion to destroy his business and his ability to function in safety; and it certainly doesn’t seem fair to direct any of our righteous rage toward his wife and family. Even the Oxford conservation biologist who collared Cecil several years ago for research purposes is able to speculate that the lion’s needless death could, in some way, sound a clarion call for the world to focus its energy and awareness on the plight of wildlife and their ever shrinking habitats. Yet months after the death of a not-endangered Texas domestic cat, I’ve seen no such posts—none—advocating the exercise of any sort of objective perspective in the case of Kristen Lindsey. The mob still seems wholly united in its desire to see her career destroyed and her future obliterated. Just as troubling, there is a movement to have her mother fired from her job for the sin of showing support for her own daughter. Social media has vowed to remember “Tiger” the same way earlier generations pledged to remember September 11, Pearl Harbor, or the Alamo—without even a hint of irony to suggest awareness that these events might not represent the same scale of tragedy.

tigerAs I do whenever I hear about a case of animal abuse, I’ve tried to re-imagine Lindsey’s case in a way that would explain her actions as being something other than simple evil. In her case, it wasn’t easy. She captioned her gruesome photo with, “My first bow kill, lol. The only good feral tomcat is one with an arrow through its head! Vet of the year award…gladly accepted.”

The way I see it, there are two components are work here: first, what she did; second, her attitude about it.

Here’s an alternative story we could tell ourselves about what she did. You might have a harder time than I do with this version, but please understand that my speculation is colored by my experience as a foster parent for new or recently born kittens that are turned over to my local human society. Along with a small group of other volunteers, I keep these kittens in my home to nurture and socialize them until they are big and strong enough to undergo neutering. Once they hit their milestones, they are returned to the humane society for surgery and then go on the adoption floor to find their permanent homes.

I’m not going to lie—it’s one of the most fun and gratifying “jobs” I’ve ever had. Yet, two years in, I find myself wishing for a couple days off between litters to do some deep cleaning and airing out of the house, or to give my resident cat a short break from the tiny intruders who unwisely insist she must be their mommy. But these breaks really don’t happen. Just yesterday I turned in a litter and was asked to choose between four more litters that were confined to cages and waiting for a foster placement. I’ve had kittens sicken, fail to thrive, even (once) die in my care, but there is no opportunity to pause and process these experiences. The pressure of the unplanned kitten population is relentless; it just never stops. The only good news is that I can be pretty much assured that my graduates will all find placements. They always do.

(And whenever a young kitten is adopted, there are several wonderful adult cats who will have to linger on indefinitely in their cages because they just can’t compete with the youngsters. And even though our humane society doesn’t euthanize healthy, adoptable animals, this is still what breaks my heart.)

So perhaps Kristen Lindsey, a licensed veterinarian, had also experienced the unrelenting tide of animal suffering that results from kitten over-population. And, although it’s pretty clear now that her victim might have been a pet, let’s give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she did believe this was a feral cat. An unaltered, feral tomcat is a constant source of kittens in a world where there are simply not enough homes for all the cats that are born. He is also potentially a source of injury or disease to other people’s (including Lindsey’s) own house pets. And there was an early source—immediately silenced in the tsunami of outrage—that said she had been concerned about a rabid stray cat that had been spotted in her neighborhood.

Once she had killed the cat, it would have been perfectly obvious (for this link, you’re welcome) to her if the cat had been neutered. If that was the case, I doubt she would have ever gloated over the kill—she would have realized that the cat had an owner who would have been understandably outraged when her act was discovered. No, I believe the cat was unaltered and that she could honestly have thought she was doing a good thing by eliminating an unaltered, feral cat from the breeding pool. It’s a variation of the famous Trolley Problem; she chose to save many by sacrificing one. No matter how queasy we might be with the ethics of that decision, we certainly can’t argue with the math.

(I find it telling that in everything I’ve read about this case in social media about poor Tiger, no one has reported if he was neutered or not. Why is that? Are we afraid that a fact like the contributory negligence of a-pet-owner-irresponsibly-allowing-an-unaltered-cat-to-roam might distract us from the story we’re telling ourselves?)

So why did Lindsey have to kill the cat? Wouldn’t it have been more humane to trap-neuter-release the cat? Certainly this is now becoming the accepted best practice to deal with feral populations; more progressive locales even refer to these colonies as “community cats,” denoting that, despite their unsuitability as house pets, they are still under the care of nearby people and should be afforded a life free of harassment. However, TNR programs, in much of the country, are still a new, novel, and progressive approach. In much of the country, ferals are still seen as threats to domestic animals and nuisances. Exterminating them remains a goal in many communities. It’s not my viewpoint, and it’s probably not yours, but that doesn’t mean the act was outside the local norms for her area. Remember, we’re talking small town Texas here.

atticusSo that leaves us with her attitude—her unapologetic glee and pride in her act of killing. Something about that smile and those glib words just sets our teeth on edge. We feel deeply that she should demonstrate remorse for taking what she may have thought was a necessary (but still repugnant) action. We conjure up junior high memories of a stoic Atticus Finch shooting a rabid dog for the good of his community and safety of his children. His act might have been necessary, but he would never have allowed it to be celebrated. This is attitude we want modeled by the people who do distasteful things for the sake of others. Even if we can bring ourselves to understand that Lindsey might have believed she was doing a good thing in preventing a feral tom from breeding indiscriminately, we have even greater difficultly in stomaching her social media touchdown celebration. Something about that just doesn’t sit right.

Really, this is the part of the story that’s most troubling; not the act—after all, humans kill animals every day, through the food and farming industries, through hunting, accidents, misadventure, and, yes, even through thoughtless cruelty—and (Walter Palmer notwithstanding) we seldom see the mob turn on these people with the single-minded fury that we’ve seen in the case of Kristen Lindsay. If we can tolerate being perfectly honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we are at least as angry about her attitude as we are about her act.

Why is this? I can’t help but feel there is at least some element of sexism here. When we look at photos of Kristen Lindsey we see an attractive, presumably single, young lady from the south. Our society has certain behavioral expectations associated with her demographic, and those expectations do not include indulging in any sort of professional braggadocio. Had she been a professional male athlete, as an alternative example, this attitude would not have surprised us in any way—most of us would have expected it; some of us may have even been amused by it. Coming as it did from someone who looks like Lindsey, we are incensed by the attitude. But are we responding to the attitude itself? Or to the image of a young woman choosing to act outside our expectations of what we consider to be acceptable behavior?

Yes, I know. Walter Palmer is currently in the same social media pillory that Kristen Lindsey has been trapped in for many months, and there are no threads of sexism running through his narrative. But were their actions similar enough to justify their similar treatment? She killed an animal that was contributing the suffering of an over populated species. He shot an animal that was keeping a threatened species from sliding ever further down the slippery slope toward extinction, subverting an important research project, and complicating the already ultra-complex issue of trophy hunting in Africa. Yes, each life matters. But, no, the long term consequences of these kills for their species are going to be substantially different.

This summer we were reminded that Atticus Finch is a fictional character, and one far more nuanced than we assumed when we were looking at the world through the eyes of a child. For those of us using social media as a vehicle for blame-and-shame, it’s time for us to grow up too. Even the most black-and-white cases of abuse reveal a startling range of grays when examined closely. If we’re not prepared to devote our time to those examinations, we need to trust the systems and laws that we’ve establsihed to do so on our behalves. We need to step back and put down our slings and bows & arrows. Because the human lives at the heart of these stories matter.