When a controversial animal rights activist outed Dr. Walter Palmer as the hunter who killed Cecil the lion last month, the Minnesota dentist became arguably one of the most hated people in the world almost overnight.
Soon after Cecil’s killer was made public, protesters showed up at Palmer’s dental office in Bloomington, Minnesota, waving signs that said things like “lion killer” and “justice for Cecil.” They started building a shrine of stuffed lions at his office front door.
And last week, vigilantes vandalized his Marco Island, Florida, vacation home, covering his driveway with bloodied pigs’ feet.
Palmer was the target of countless hateful and threatening Internet posts.
Since then, the highly skilled bow hunter has remained out of the public eye.
Rebecca Francis, a big-game hunter and bow-hunting expert from Wyoming, knows exactly how Palmer probably feels.
Five years ago, Francis went to Africa and posed for a photo lying next to an adult dead giraffe she had just killed. She posted the photo on her personal website. In April of this year, comedian Ricky Gervais tweeted out her photo with the words, “What must’ve happened to you in your life to make you want to kill a beautiful animal and then lie next to it smiling?”
Gervais’ tweet immediately set off a public firestorm. It has since been retweeted almost 50,000 times.
Francis was slammed with thousands of hateful messages and posts. To this day, she still receives threatening messages. She says her life has been completely upended, even though her giraffe hunt was legal.
“[The photo] wasn’t disrespect … it was to remember this experience,” Francis told ABC News’ “20/20.” “And there were people [locals] ready to take the meat … they used everything even down to the tail where they take the hairs and make jewelry to sell it.”
Unlike Francis, Palmer shot and killed Cecil, one of the world’s most famous lions and the biggest dominant male black-maned lion just in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, in an area that was not approved for killing lions, according to Zimbabwean authorities.
Palmer, who temporarily closed his dental office, admitted to killing the lion in a statement, but also said he didn’t know it was Cecil.
“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. I relied on the expertise of my local professional guides to ensure a legal hunt,” Palmer said in a statement. “Again, I deeply regret that my pursuit of an activity I love and practice responsibly and legally resulted in the taking of this lion.”
And yet, Goodwell Nzou, a Zimbawean who is pursuing a Ph.D. in molecular bio-sciences in North Carolina, is shocked by the U.S. outrage over Cecil the lion’s death.
“How is it possible that anyone could, you know, cry or feel so sad about a dead lion?” he said. “We see animals as, you know, threats to us, not as ‘cute Simbas.’”
In his home village of Chikasa, in Zimbabwe, Nzou said the news of the death of a dangerous lion would be celebrated.
Francis said she witnessed such jubilation firsthand after she shot and killed a hippopotamus in Mozambique.
“When I took that hippo down, everyone in the village came running … They were cheering… They were hugging me and kissing me and thanking me,” Francis said. “They all had their bucket and their knife, and they were all cutting up that hippo ... every single drop of that hippo was utilized to that village.”
It’s proof, she says, that there is more to the story than a smiling hunter standing next to a bloody carcass for a photo. In fact, she considers herself an animal conservationist. She says the bulk of hunting fees in Africa go directly into animal conservation efforts. She cites Safari Club International, whose president, Larry Rudolph, claims that $200 million from hunting fees and government permits goes back into rural African communities every year.
Francis asked, “Hunters bring in $200 million per year to the economy… If we eliminate hunting... how are we going to replace $200 million?”
But Jeff Flocken, North American regional director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), disagrees with the premise that hunting is the best way to help animals.
IFAW released a report in 2013 called “The $200 Million Question,” refuting the claim that so much money actually returns to African communities. The report claims that most of the money raised from hunting in Africa goes into a “black hole” on unaccountability and that only about 3 percent of hunting revenue goes into the local communities.
“We know that we can save animals on the ground by working with local communities, and local communities have to be part of the solution,” Flocken said, “but killing the wildlife, throwing money at the issue and then calling yourself a conservationist just doesn’t stand up.”
As for Palmer, Zimbabwe’s environment, water and climate minister, Oppah Muchiniguri, said at a news conference last month that the Zimbabwe government was seeking to extradite the Minnesota dentist for hunting without the proper permits. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has opened its own investigation.
ABC's Deborah Roberts, Eamon McNiff and Jennifer Joseph contributed to this report