An American dentist who admitted that he killed a well-known lion this month in Zimbabwe and planned to mount the head has closed his practice near Minneapolis as the furor online has turned vitriolic and, at times, threatening.
Dr. Walter J. Palmer’s neatly groomed property, adjacent to a preschool, has turned from a dentist’s office to a memorial to the lion, called Cecil, with red roses and more than a dozen stuffed animals laid outside the locked front door.
There was no answer to repeated knocks and doorbell rings at his large, stucco house in an affluent, wooded neighborhood. His neighbors would not talk.
In the hours after Dr. Palmer said he had killed the lion under the impression that the hunt was legal and undertaken with the proper permits, he went from a dentist and longtime hunting enthusiast to the villain at the center of a virtual firestorm over the ethics of big-game trophy hunting. He apologized in a statement: “I deeply regret that my pursuit of an activity I love and practice responsibly and legally resulted in the taking of this lion.”
When it was reported that a Texas man paid $350,000 to hunt and kill a black rhinoceros in Namibia this year, the debate remained among activists. But the death of Cecil, a 13-year-old lion who wandered out of his sanctuary in a national park in Zimbabwe this month, struck a chord with social media users. Dr. Palmer had paid around $54,000 to hunt the animal, according to news reports.
According to the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, the lion was shot by Dr. Palmer with a crossbow after it was lured out of the sanctuary, following the scent of food. Cecil, well known to those who visited the Hwange National Park in western Zimbabwe for his jet black mane, was only injured by the arrow. The hunters tracked the lion for about two days before it was killed with a gun, conservation officials said. It was beheaded and skinned, the corpse left to rot.
As more details around the killing emerged, activists used search engines to find Dr. Palmer’s contact information and social media to share information about his business and his family, stirring a fever pitch of anger strong enough to effectively dismantle his digital life.
Angry people sent a surge of traffic to Dr. Palmer’s website, which was taken offline. Vitriolic reviews flooded his Yelp page — “Murderer,” one reviewer wrote. A Facebook page titled “Shame Lion Killer Dr. Palmer and River Bluff Dental” drew thousands of users. Professional profiles of Dr. Palmer were also scrubbed from industry websites.
On Wednesday, a memorial to Cecil, comprising stuffed animals, was outside the dentist’s office. Several news media vans were also parked nearby.
Zimbabwean officials said Dr. Palmer was being sought on poaching charges. In a statement on Tuesday, Dr. Palmer said that he had not been contacted by the authorities, but that he was willing to cooperate with their requests. He said that he believed what he had done was legal.
“I had no idea that the lion I took was a known, local favorite, was collared and part of a study, until the end of the hunt,” Dr. Palmer said. “I relied on the expertise of my local professional guides to ensure a legal hunt.”
Two Zimbabwean men, a farm owner and a professional hunter, are accused of helping Dr. Palmer hunt the lion. They appeared in court on Wednesday on poaching charges.
In a joint statement, the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority and the Safari Operators Association of Zimbabwe said that the farm owner did not have a hunting permit. The professional hunter’s license has been suspended, the statement said.
Dr. Palmer has had past problems related to hunting. He faced probation after he pleaded guilty in 2008 to making a false statement to federal officials about where, exactly, a black bear was killed in Wisconsin.