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Dentist, others involved in killing Cecil the lion may not face prosecution

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. -- While international outrage against a Minnesota dentist who killed a beloved Zimbabwe lion showed no signs of abating Wednesday, any legal ramifications against him appear to be an uphill battle.

Animal Rights Correlation representative Rachel Augusta leads the crowd in a chant during a protest of the murder of Cecil the Lion outside of River Bluff Dental, Walter J. Palmer's office, in Bloomington on Wednesday, July 29, 2015. "All your money all your lies we will never compromise," Augusta chanted.(Pioneer Press: Holly Peterson)

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. -- While international outrage against a Minnesota dentist who killed a beloved Zimbabwe lion showed no signs of abating Wednesday, any legal ramifications against him appear to be an uphill battle.

The Bloomington dentist was castigated by the governor, his practice targeted by hundreds of protesters in person and thousands online, and at least one U.S. congresswoman has called for an investigation into whether he broke the law - any law.

But while one of his guides was charged in Zimbabwe Wednesday with failing to “prevent an unlawful hunt,” no charges have been brought against Walter Palmer. Zimbabwe officials say they are looking for him, but many question whether he will be charged, and if he is, which United States law would justify an extradition.

During a nighttime hunt in early July, Palmer and his guides tied a dead animal to a car, luring Cecil out of Hwange National Park, according to Zimbabwe conservation officials.

Palmer, 55, used a bow and arrow to shoot the lion on private land. Tracking data from the lion’s GPS collar show it survived for about 40 hours before it was shot and killed with a rifle. Palmer has admitted to killing the lion but said he believed everything about the hunt was legal, and that he was simply following the directions of his guides.


But the act created a seismic public backlash, closing - at least temporarily - Palmer’s Bloomington practice and prompting elected officials to weigh in. To date, the official feedback has been uniformly negative.

“I think it’s horrible, just horrible. It’s an iconic lion, they lured the animal out of the preserve. I don’t understand how anybody thinks that’s sport,” Gov. Mark Dayton said during a press conference Wednesday.

Humane Society president Wayne Pacelle called Palmer a “morally deadened human being,” and in a written statement, Congresswoman Betty McCollum called on the U.S. Attorney’s Office and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to investigate “whether U.S. laws were violated.”

Palmer sent a letter to his patients Wednesday, obtained by FOX9 News, reiterating that he’d followed the law and done nothing wrong during the hunt, and adding, “We will do our best to resume normal operations as soon as possible. We are working to have patients with immediate needs referred to other dentists and will keep you informed of any additional developments.”

The dentist also added that “I don’t often talk about hunting with my patients because it can be a divisive and emotionally charged topic. I understand and respect that not everyone shares the same views on hunting.”

While Palmer identified himself as a "North Dakotan" on the website for his dental practice, it's not clear where Palmer is from in North Dakota.

However, public records show he owns land in western Minnesota.

In the southeast corner of Clay County, about 10 miles east of Barnesville, Palmer owns nearly 800 acres of rural property, according to county records.


He also owns about 80 acres on the west edge of Pelican Lake in Otter Tail County, records show. About half of that property is unfarmed pasture and wooded area, though he does have a residential trailer home on the land.

Two people - including Palmer’s guide, and the man who owned the land Cecil was killed on - were originally arrested in Zimbabwe. The hunt was illegal not because the lion was lured out of the park, but because the land it was killed on did not have a lion quota permitting the kill.

Still, on Wednesday, the owner of the land where the lion was killed, Honest Trymore Ndlovu, appeared in court but was not charged and was released from custody, his lawyer Tonderai Makuku said. LionAid, a UK-based nonprofit dedicated to saving lions and familiar with the region, noted earlier this week that Honest Trymore Ndlovu “is allegedly related to the Zimbabwe Minister of Transport, and will therefore be immune from prosecution.”

Zimbabwe national police spokeswoman Charity Charamba has said that officials there “are looking for Palmer in connection with the same case,” but thus far no charges have been brought against him.

The poaching charge carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison in Zimbabwe.

While many legal experts speculate whether those charges will be brought against Palmer, even if they do, there is some question whether he would be extradited to face them.

Zimbabwe has a extradition treaty with the United States, signed by President Bill Clinton in 2000, applicable to all crimes punishable by more than a year in jail. The crime must be punishable at that level in both countries in order for extradition to occur.

But in the United States, federal laws against poaching foreign animals appear to apply specifically to transporting an animal’s carcass, or “trophies,” after it’s been killed - and not to the act of killing itself.


“That’s the trigger,” noted U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Laury Parramore.

Currently, the African lion is protected under the Convention on International Trade and Endangered Species, and is being considered for protection under the Endangered Species Act. That decision will likely not happen for months - and regardless, a violation of the Act carries a maximum criminal penalty of only “up to one year” of incarceration per violation.

Additionally, the federal Lacey Act, passed in 1900, prohibits “interstate or foreign commerce involving any fish, wildlife, or plants taken possessed or sold in violation of State or foreign law,” the Wildlife Service noted.

But again, the “trigger” for enforcement under that statute typically occurs when trophies are transported over borders, Parramore said.

Zimbabwe officials have said they have possession of the trophies in the Cecil hunt.

Ben Petok, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said he wasn’t aware of a specific federal statute against poaching, but added that other statutes could be interpreted to be related to the practice. Petok stressed that he was not a legal expert on the matter.

At the state level, poaching is either a misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor - neither of which carry prison sentences of more than a year. Gov. Dayton attempted to pass legislation this year making some repeated poaching of big game animals a felony, but the effort failed.

Elie Mystal, editor of Above the Law, a New York-based online news site dedicated to legal issues, noted, “the question of whether he (Palmer) will be charged in Zimbabwe is a real open issue.”


Mystal, whose wife is from Zimbabwe, noted that from Zimbabwe’s perspective, big game animals cannot be hunted without guides - guides not only are, but must be, according to local ideology, responsible for what happens there.

Additionally, “there’s maybe not a lot of desire to charge tourists. That may have a chilling effect in that industry.”

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe’s relationship with the U.S., Mystal added, is particularly strained.

“Mugabe’s only going to do something if he can figure out a way to make America look bad in the process,” he added.

Still, national outrage in Zimbabwe has led local officials to look at this case in ways they might not have with a less famous lion, said Mystal.

“Imagine a Russian comes over to America, shoots Big Bird in the head, and says, ‘I thought it was just a chicken!’,” Mystal said. “From a cultural standpoint this is a particularly heinous act.”

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