By Brian Bakst and Farai Mutsaka
ST. PAUL, Minn. — A Minnesota dentist who has become the target of worldwide outrage for hunting and killing a protected lion in Zimbabwe advised patients Wednesday to seek care elsewhere and said he rarely discussed his big-game hunting because it can be a “divisive and emotionally charged topic.”
Walter James Palmer remained secluded in the face of protests at his suburban Minneapolis clinic and intense condemnation online. He has not appeared in public since being identified Tuesday as a party to the lion’s death.
Palmer, whose practice offers general and cosmetic dentistry, is an active big-game hunter, with many kills to his name, some of them registered with hunting clubs.
The North Dakota native “enjoys all outdoor activities,” according to the biography page on his now-dark clinic website. “Anything allowing him to stay active and observe and photograph wildlife is where you will find Dr. Palmer when he not in the office.”
Meanwhile in Zimbabwe, a hunting guide and a farm owner appeared in court on allegations they helped Palmer kill the lion named Cecil. And the head of Zimbabwe’s safari association said the big cat with the black mane was lured into the kill zone and denied “a chance of a fair chase.”
The Zimbabwean men were accused of aiding Palmer, who reportedly paid $50,000 to track and kill a lion. Zimbabwe police have said they are looking for Palmer, whose exact whereabouts were unknown.
Palmer, 55, referenced the situation in a note to his patients. “I understand and respect that not everyone shares the same views on hunting,” he wrote in the letter, which was obtained by the local Fox television affiliate.
The married father of two was the subject of a 2009 New York Times article about big-game hunting in which he said he learned to shoot at age 5. The article said Palmer had a reputation for being capable of “skewering a playing card from 100 yards” with a compound bow and having “a purist’s reputation for his disinclination to carry firearms as backup.”
During the nighttime hunt, the Zimbabwean men tied a dead animal to their car to draw the lion out of a national park, said Johnny Rodrigues, chairman of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force.
The American is believed to have shot it with a crossbow. The wounded cat was then tracked for 40 hours before Palmer fatally shot it with a gun, Rodrigues said.
A professional hunter named Theo Bronkhorst was accused of failing to “prevent an unlawful hunt.” Court documents said Bronkhorst was supervising while Palmer shot the animal.
Bronkhorst was released on $1,000 bail after appearing in court in Hwange, about 435 miles (700 kilometers) west of the capital Harare, according to his defense lawyer, Givemore Muvhiringi.
If convicted, Bronkhorst faces up to 15 years in prison.
A second man, farm owner Honest Trymore Ndlovu, also appeared in court but was not charged and was released from custody, his lawyer Tonderai Makuku said.
The court documents made no mention of Palmer as a suspect.
Using bait to lure the lion is deemed unethical by the Safari Operators Association of Zimbabwe, of which Bronkhorst is a member. The association has since revoked his license.
“Ethics are certainly against baiting. Animals are supposed to be given a chance of a fair chase,” Emmanuel Fundira, the association’s president, said. “In fact, it was not a hunt at all. The animal was baited, and that is not how we do it. It is not allowed.”
It was not entirely clear if baiting is allowed by Zimbabwe law. Fundira said the practice was both unethical and illegal. The conservation group Lion Aid says it is unethical but not expressly forbidden.
Palmer attended dental school at the University of Minnesota and built his practice in the Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington. He said in a statement that he did not know the lion was protected and relied on his guides to ensure a legal hunt.
“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,” Palmer said in statement issued through a public-relations firm.
Cecil was being studied by an Oxford University research program.
Social media were filled with condemnation of the killing just outside Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park. On Twitter, the hashtag cecilthelion was in wide use.
A few protesters gathered Wednesday outside Palmer’s office with signs, including one that said, “Let the hunter be hunted!” Sarah Madison brought her two children, including her 3-year-old son dressed in a lion costume. She said says the hunt, even if legal, was “immoral” and “disgraceful.”
Organizations that foster and defend big-game hunting distanced themselves from Palmer, including those where he was a member.
Palmer appeared in past versions of Safari Club International records dated as recently as July 5, but his name had been dropped from the standings as of Tuesday evening. Corresponding pages featuring photos of Palmer with an African lion, a southern white rhinoceros and an African elephant remained accessible on the club’s website.
Chip Burkhalter, the club’s director of government relations, initially told a reporter he would respond to calls following a meeting, but then he could not be reached.
Glenn Hisey, director of records for the Minnesota-based Pope and Young Club, where Palmer registered some of his killings by bow, told The Associated Press that the group was concerned about the news from Africa.
“If he violated controlling game laws there, he might have violated controlling game laws other places,” Hisey said Tuesday, adding that Palmer’s listings with the club could be examined as more facts emerge.
By Wednesday, Hisey was declining to comment.
According to U.S. court records, Palmer pleaded guilty in 2008 to making false statements to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about a black bear he fatally shot in western Wisconsin. Palmer had a permit to hunt but shot the animal outside the authorized zone in 2006, then tried to pass it off as being killed elsewhere, according to court documents. He was given one year probation and fined nearly $3,000.
Cecil is believed to have been killed July 1 and his carcass discovered days later.