Don’t look for her mourners on Twitter. The only thing harder to find would be her native habitat.

Credit: Photo: Alex O'Neal/Flickr

While visiting family in Texas last week, I spotted a dead deer one morning by the side of the road—quite clearly the victim of a wee-hours collision with an automobile. I went through the sequence of emotions that typically befalls me whenever I witness a beautiful creature that’s been taken before its time: breathless surprise, followed by deep sadness, followed by a vague, ineffable sense of moral complicity.

That last one always throws me for a pensive loop. This time, though, the loop brought me around to Cecil the Lion.

Surely you remember Cecil. But given that six weeks of social-media time is equivalent to about six years of actually-living-on-earth-and-doing-real-things time, let’s briefly recap. The beloved and much-studied lion residing within Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park was lured out of his protected area and killed in July by Walter Palmer, a 55-year-old dentist from Minnesota who paid tens of thousands of dollars to fell one of Cecil’s kind and cut off its head for a trophy. When word got out of what Palmer had done, the condemnation went viral and global: The dentist received death threats—in addition to a barrage of opprobrious Yelp “reviews”—and retreated into reclusive exile, temporarily closing his practice. (As it happens, he just reopened it earlier this week, amid continued protests.)

At first glance, a deer accidentally hit by a car in the hilly outskirts of Austin and a lion callously shot by a well-to-do trophy hunter vacationing in Africa would seem to fall into distinctly different subcategories under “Unfortunate Animal Deaths.” But throughout the remainder of my Texas trip, I was plagued by a nagging feeling that these two tragic events, one well-known and one barely noticed, are more closely related than they appear to be.

I’ve written before about the fast-growing exurb to which my parents retired, more specifically about the speed with which newly built houses and massive shopping centers have replaced wildlife habitat. There are plenty of metrics by which one can gauge the massive changes to the natural landscape there, from housing starts to traffic snarls to water shortages. But a quicker way of grasping the transformation is simply to count the number of people who have moved there. In 1990, a few years before my parents relocated to the area, the population was a little more than 4,000. Over the next decade, it doubled; what had started out as a large-ish housing development began taking on the properties of a small city. And it keeps on growing—at a truly staggering rate of nearly 200 percent over the last 25 years, according to local census data.

Or you could just count the deer, whose numbers have plunged commensurately. When my folks moved to their (then still somewhat isolated) community on the southeastern edge of Lake Travis, they would regularly spot as many as a hundred white-tailed deer during one of their leisurely, and exceptionally slow, evening drives. Over the nine days I recently spent there, I believe I saw a total of eight, not including the stilled doe by the side of the road that morning.

My mother still gets excited when she sees, from her kitchen window, a mama deer and her babies cautiously making their way toward the perceived safety of the small, shady copse down by the community pool. On this last visit, her two Brooklynite granddaughters shared in her excitement: For kids who can’t help but define “local wildlife” as the dogs, sparrows, and squirrels in their urban neighborhood, deer might as well be unicorns.

Other residents, though, aren’t as enamored. When a CBS news crew paid a visit some years back to do a story on how the locals were handling the “deer problem,” the general mood of those interviewed seemed to be resigned exasperation. By then, the animals had munched too many lawns, mangled too many flowerbeds, and been a part of too many car collisions or near misses to kindle much joy in those who spotted them through their back windows. As development continued apace, deer had gone from aesthetic to annoying, from bucolic to burdensome.

Efforts to trap the creatures and ship them down to ranches in Mexico didn’t pan out; the plan, in practice, was inefficient and expensive. And so city officials did what they felt like they had to do: Trap the deer and send them off to processing plants to be turned into venison—tens of thousands of pounds of which have been donated to area food banks since the policy was enacted in 2010. Before long, the community’s much publicized deer problem became an elegantly executed solution to another local problem: hunger.

So everything worked out fine, right? Decimating the local deer population “has improved the safety of citizens, and it’s improved the health of the deer herds,” the city’s ex-mayor told the local paper at the time. “Less deer means less competition for food.” Which is true, I suppose, although this feel-good summary of events elides an important fact: The deer, inarguably, were there first—by the tens of thousands, and for centuries, if not millennia. During which time they somehow managed to feed themselves just fine and do their best to avoid predators like wolves and mountain lions, our continent's versions of Cecil. The “deer problem” emerged only once their predators were extirpated and their hilly habitat razed and turned into homes for all those people who’d read in their favorite business magazine that Austin was one of America’s fastest-growing cities, or its most livable, and decided they’d better get down there quick and buy themselves a nice little piece of property. Maybe something far from town, out by the lake. You know: out in nature.

Cecil had a name, a reputation for friendliness, and a host of human friends who were, by and large, looking out for him. It’s a horribly sad bit of irony that his familiarity with people—which came as a result of his habitat having shrunk considerably from his species’ historic range to the comfy corner of a managed wildlife preserve—may have contributed to his death: He almost certainly wasn’t frightened or mystified when he was beckoned toward Palmer before being shot by an arrow. (Palmer says he later shot the severely wounded animal, fatally, with a rifle.)

In this one respect, Cecil wasn’t all that unlike a deer trying to live its life amid the McMansioned cul-de-sacs of a modern-day American housing development. He had little choice but to accept the fact that his wildness, like his habitat, had been transformed by human beings into a kind of salable commodity. That he died the way he did, all so that a hunter could add yet another gruesome trophy to his collection, strikes us rightly as perverse. In recalling the act, we may even feel some of that ineffable moral complicity that I previously described—since his death also seems like it could have been avoided, possibly, had enough people expressed their outrage earlier and converted that outrage into political or economic pressure.

But as you mourn Cecil, spare a kind thought for a beautiful young doe down in Texas who was simply trying to cross the street one morning when she collided with the cold, cruel manifest destiny of sprawl. I went ahead and named her Cecily, since nobody else seemed like they were going to give her a name.

This article was originally published on onEarth, which is no longer in publication. onEarth was founded in 1979 as the Amicus Journal, an independent magazine of thought and opinion on the environment. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. This article is available for online republication by news media outlets or nonprofits under these conditions: The writer(s) must be credited with a byline; you must note prominently that the article was originally published by NRDC.org and link to the original; the article cannot be edited (beyond simple things such grammar); you can’t resell the article in any form or grant republishing rights to other outlets; you can’t republish our material wholesale or automatically—you need to select articles individually; you can’t republish the photos or graphics on our site without specific permission; you should drop us a note to let us know when you’ve used one of our articles.

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