Dianna Hanson was mauled to death by a lion at a big cat sanctuary in Northern California on Wednesday. The 24-year-old intern had entered the animal’s enclosure for undisclosed reasons when she was attacked.
The incident’s tragedy is unfathomable, but curiously, much of the reportage has focused on how “shocking” it was. That we’re even capable of surprise when a 350-pound carnivorous mammal kills a human speaks volumes about Americans' complex relationship with wild animals.
It seems absurd, if you think about it: Ellen Degeneres cradled this same lion on TV when it was a cub five years ago. Jeff Corwin told Anderson Cooper that he’s "incredibly surprised" whenever an incident like this occurs. Much of the discussion has centered on whether or not the lion, Cous Cous, had displayed "aggressive behavior" in the past, or whether the sanctuary was "professionally run." All of these instances miss the point entirely.
The truth remains that anyone who works with wild creatures faces the possibility of being violently killed. This is true regardless of any "personal" relationship between human and animal. Chris Rock said it best when discussing the infamous Siegfried and Roy tiger mauling: "The tiger didn’t go crazy, that tiger went tiger." There’s no arguing with nature.
So why do we act surprised? Partly because there’s a marked disconnect between how we think of wild animals and what they’re really like. Some of these misconceptions come from popular culture: it’s a logical but damaging mistake of the animal rights movement, for example, to drive people toward empathy with animals by anthropomorphizing them. Pamphlets tell us we shouldn’t harm our furry friends because they’re "intelligent" or have "unique personalities." By making animals seem "human," we’re supposed to wish them less harm.
That we need to think a living being is somehow "like us" to not want to kill it is problematic on its own. But equally concerning is that we’re led to believe animals' "personalities" allow us to relate to them similarly to how we do with humans. Films from our childhood perform similar work on our psyche: after watching The Lion King, who wouldn’t want Simba as a friend?
Learning to respect animals is an admirable pursuit. I’m sure countless conservationists, activists, scientists, and others like Dianna Hanson can partly trace their interests to Disney films and their kind. But animals are motivated by different biological factors than us. Killing has no emotional consequence for carnivores: even if raised in captivity, it’s kind of bizarre for a lion not to kill something at some point.
This all is why the "shocked" tone of the media coverage is so strange. That this reaction is even possible means our wildlife education needs an update. Instead of teaching kids to love animals because they’re our "friends," teach them to do so because animals are living creatures, and because of this, they too deserve to live without being violently destroyed.
It seems like a simple concept. But until an incident like this is discussed with utter lack of surprise, much work remains to be done.