What a paradox that a creature so fantastically fanged as Cecil the lion (not pictured) should have been slaughtered by Walter Palmer (left), a middle-aged, balding, Midwestern American who applies his working hours to the preservation of teeth.
Poor Cecil the lion. To be hunted by a human was bad enough. To be hunted and shot by an American tourist made it somehow worse.
Then came the final indignity: we learned that Cecil, so magnificently maned, had been killed by a dentist. From Minnesota.
Romance was brought low by the mundane. Distinguished free will was extinguished by something sterile and cruel.
A suburban dentist! What a paradox that a creature so fantastically fanged as Cecil the lion should have been slaughtered by Walter Palmer, a middle-aged, balding, Midwestern American who applies his working hours to the preservation of teeth.
The outcry has gone global. Protesters (some in lion costumes, some holding placards saying ‘KILLER!’) have paraded outside Mr Palmer’s dental surgery on the outskirts of Minneapolis, clearly reflecting international disgust at big-game hunting.
But I wonder if they have also, in part, been fuelled by another worldwide phenomenon: our almost hypnotised fascination with — and horror of — dentists.
The dentist occupies a peculiar position in 21st-century culture. He (and in cartoons it is always, for some reason, a male dentist, though the profession has many women) is a stock representative of pain and cruelty.
And yet, dentists are an important part of healthcare. Dentists keep us strong and fit. They do sterling work in reducing our pain from tooth decay.
Why do we live in terror of them? Why do we regard them in so negative a light?
The high-pitched ‘wheeeee’ of a dental drill can make us rigid with terror. Just hearing that sound used to make my late grandmother moan and hold her jaw in agony. The smell of antiseptic mouthwash, the thought of those starchy white jackets, the scrape of a metallic probe on our gums: we shudder at the thought.
Any tale of a sadistic dentist has a strange draw on our imagination. We look to one another and say: ‘Told you so.’ When we heard that Cecil, the pride of Africa, had been mercilessly exterminated by some dentist, were we surprised? Or did we think: ‘Yep, that sounds all too believable.’
As the dear departed Pete Postlethwaite remarked in the opening scene of the sequel to Jurassic Park, where his character was leading a safari of alpha males on a dinosaur hunt: ‘I’ve been on too many safaris with rich dentists to listen to any more suicidal ideas.’
Dentists make natural villains. Film producers are, at present, making a small-screen version of the story of Colin Howell, the Northern Irish dentist (and Baptist preacher) who was in 1991 found to have murdered both his wife and the husband of his mistress. His preferred method of murder? Gassing.
Can we not already picture the film’s opening scene in a dental surgery and a white-coated figure murmuring, ‘You will feel no pain’?
Another dentist, Sohail Qureshi, was nicknamed ‘the driller killer’ after being arrested at Heathrow airport in 2008 on his way to joining the Taliban.
Four years ago there was a suspicious death in New Jersey when a woman fell to her death from a high window. The story would probably have attracted little attention were it not for the fact that the victim’s husband, Roger Desilets, was a dentist — an endodontist, no less.
The media descended. Dr Desilets has since been charged in connection with his wife’s death but he remains innocent until proven otherwise.
Dentists: we call them ‘pullers’ or ‘fang bandits’, and now, after Cecil the lion, we regard them even more bleakly.
Dentists wear masks, just as highwaymen once did. Some of them certainly extract a lot more than rotten molars. ‘You’ll be screaming even more when you see my bill,’ goes one old joke about American dentists. And, ‘Let me just sedate your wallet.’
Walter Palmer seems to have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars over recent years to shoot large wild animals. That’s a lot of fillings and root canal surgery.
What a way to earn a fortune: by stooping over a prostrate human being and fiddling with their incisors. Though we are frightened of dentists, it is hard to envy them their way of living. Imagine the half-chewed food they must encounter, the bad breath. No wonder they wear masks.
As they work, do their minds wander? Are they frustrated by the constant need to reassure their quivering prey? Or does it go to their heads and bring out their inner Nero?
Perhaps that is what drove Walter Palmer to his destructive obsession. There are photographs of him posing alongside some of his animal targets: a felled rhinoceros, a bison, an antelope…