The American dentist who killed Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe has expressed dismay at the furore that engulfed his family and staff and said he needed to return to work for his patients.
Walter Palmer, who has kept a low profile for more than a month after becoming the target of protests and threats, is to return to his suburban Minneapolis dental practice on Tuesday.
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The 55-year-old dentist, who has not been charged with a crime, also reaffirmed that the hunt was legal and that he and the others in his party had no clue that the lion was the much-loved 13-year-old.
“I have a lot of staff members, and I’m a little heartbroken at the disruption in their lives,” Palmer told the Associated Press and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “And I’m a health professional. I need to get back to my staff and my patients, and they want me back. That’s why I’m back.”
After Palmer was named in late July as the hunter who killed Cecil, his Bloomington clinic and Eden Prairie home became the focus of protests and animal welfare groups vandalised a holiday home he owns in Florida.
Vilified on social media, Palmer said he was “heartbroken” for causing disruptions for staff at his clinic, which was shut for weeks until reopening in late August without him. He said the ordeal had been especially hard on his wife and daughter, who both felt threatened.
“I don’t understand that level of humanity to come after people not involved at all,” Palmer said.
As for himself, he feels safe enough to return to work. “My staff and my patients support me and they want me back,” he said. But he but declined to say where he has spent the past weeks or describe security steps he has taken.
“I’ve been out of the public eye. That doesn’t mean I’m in hiding,” Palmer said. “I’ve been among people, family and friends. Location is really not that important.”
Cecil, a fixture in the vast Hwange national park, had been fitted with a GPS collar as part of Oxford University lion research. Palmer said he shot the animal using an arrow from his compound bow outside the park’s borders but it did not die immediately. He disputed accounts that the wounded lion wandered for 40 hours and was finished off with a gun, saying it was tracked down the next day and killed with an arrow.
Palmer said he believes he acted legally and that he was stunned to find out his hunting party had killed one of Zimbabwe’s treasured animals.
“If I had known this lion had a name and was important to the country or a study obviously I wouldn’t have taken it,” Palmer said. “Nobody in our hunting party knew before or after the name of this lion.”
Palmer, who has several big-game kills to his name, reportedly paid thousands of dollars for the guided hunt.
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Theo Bronkhorst, a professional hunter who helped Palmer, has been charged with “failure to prevent an illegal hunt”. Honest Ndlovu, whose property is near the park in western Zimbabwe, faces a charge of allowing the lion hunt to occur on his farm without proper authority.
Palmer pleaded guilty in 2008 to making false statements to the fish and wildlife service about a black bear he fatally shot in western Wisconsin outside the authorised hunting zone. He was given probation of one year and was fined nearly $3,000 as part of a plea agreement.