Cecil the Lion: Friend of Beloved Animal's Killer Speaks Out

A childhood friend of Dr. Walter Palmer says he's been unfairly portrayed.

ByABC News
August 14, 2015, 7:35 AM

— -- A childhood friend of Dr. Walter Palmer, the Minnesota dentist who killed Cecil the lion, says Palmer has been unfairly portrayed since the news of the lion’s death went public.

"I've probably known him for 50 years already, and I've never seen anything like what we are being told about," Chad Wagner told ABC News’ “20/20” in an exclusive interview. “[He’s] the type of guy who would give you the shirt off his back when in need. He would be the type of guy to help anybody.”

Palmer has been avoiding the public eye since the world learned that he killed Cecil, a well-known 13-year-old male lion, just outside Hwange National Park in Hwange, Zimbabwe in July.

Wagner said he had known Palmer and his family since they were kids in Lisbon, North Dakota, a farming community of about 2,000 people.

“His dad was a doctor,” Wagner said. “His family was very well liked...obviously being the doctor in town...you’re one of the most prominent people in town.”

As kids, Wagner said he and Palmer would hunt pheasant geese and white-tailed deer together.

“[It’s] about as quiet and desolate as it comes,” Wagner said, looking out over the fields where they used to hunt. “Had a lot of good times up here.”

Wagner also played basketball with Palmer when they were both attending Lisbon High School. Palmer’s picture still hangs on the walls of the high school. But Wagner said Palmer stood out because he was an honor student and a class leader. Local residents weren’t surprised when he followed his father’s footsteps into medicine and attended the Minnesota School of Dentistry.

Palmer eventually opened his own private dental practice, River Bluff Dental, in suburban Minneapolis. He became an award-winning dentist that brought enormous financial success with it and he bought several homes.

His success also allowed Palmer to take his childhood interest in hunting to a whole new level -- traveling the world bow hunting big game animals.

He became so skilled that he accomplished the so-called “Super Slam of North America,” hunting and killing all 29 approved hunting species listed by the Grand Slam Club -– it’s an accomplishment only two dozen bow hunters in North America have achieved. A 2009 New York Times profile of Palmer described him as “capable of skewering a playing card from 100 yards,” and refusing to carry firearms as a back-up weapon on bow hunts.

In connection with Cecil the lion’s death, Zimbabwe’s environment, water and climate minister, Oppah Muchiniguri, said at a news conference last month that the Zimbabwe government was seeking to extradite Palmer for hunting without the proper permits. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has opened its own investigation.

In a statement, Palmer, who temporarily closed his dental office, admitted to killing the lion but said he had no idea that Cecil “was a known, local favorite, was collared and part of a study until the end of the hunt” nor that they were in a restricted area.

“I relied on the expertise of my local professional guides to ensure a legal hunt,” Palmer said in the 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.”