'It’s frustrating that people can cast so much judgment and hatred on me for what I do' - Channel 4's 'Women Who Kill Lions'
Published 28/06/2016 | 07:53
The walls of Olivia Opre’s home, like those of any proud mother, are speckled with memories. But between the smiling photos of her family holidays are impala heads and wildebeest horns: ‘memorable art’ the 39-year-old Montana-based hunting consultant has collected in her two decades as a big game hunter.
“Animals can die in a lot of ways, and I think being killed by a hunter is the most humane one,” Opre says. “Taking a life is emotional, but hunting is a journey, and a creature’s death is only five percent of the whole hunting experience.”
It’s a stance she’s been trying – somewhat unsuccessfully – to communicate to her legions of detractors since she took up hunting aged 16; Opre receives waves of “vicious” messages, sometimes up to a thousand a day, and has had a $50,000 bounty placed on her head after one critic posted her home address online.
“It’s frustrating that people can cast so much judgment and hatred on me for what I do,” she muses. “The same people who call me a ‘Bambi killer’ think it’s fine to wear leather, put lipstick on and take penicillin, all of which involve the death of an animal.
“Anti-hunters draw the conclusion that I walk up to an animal I’ve shot, smile that it’s dead and cut its head off like I’m Isis, but there’s so much more to it than that.”
Photos may not tell the whole story, but images of smiling marksmen, guns defiantly slung over their shoulder as they pose with their newly slain prey, don’t help their cause. Friday, this week, will mark a year since Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer killed Cecil the lion, an act which sparked worldwide outrage. He was issued with death threats, protesters at his office urged him ‘rot in hell’ and the killing was condemned by everyone from Ricky Gervais to Mia Farrow.
In the weeks and months that followed, David Cameron spoke out on the subject, a children’s book and limited Beanie baby dedicated to Cecil were released, and the beast was posthumously named TIME Magazine’s Most Influential Animal of 2016. Cecil’s Wikipedia page will serve as an eternal reminder of what took place 12 months ago - entire books could be filled listing the tributes that poured in from all over the globe.
“He was the victim of an extreme attack,” opines Opre – not, of course, referring to the animal, but to Palmer, who paid $50,000 for the hunt. “What happened was blown out of proportion, and that man’s life has been destroyed over hearsay.”
She is referring to the swell of claims insisting the killing had been illegal. However, criminal investigations ultimately cleared Palmer of any wrongdoing – he was on a legal hunt that had been organised by South African outfitters.
Opre puts the gargantuan public reaction down to “The Lion King, and films that show predators in a certain way” – as such, the deaths of animals like lions elicit a far greater response than those of less exotic mammals such as moose or wolves. “There is so much emotion wrapped around this because we love our dogs and cats, which have been humanised,” she explains. “But I’m not a murderer – that’s something one human does to another.
Opre may not be a murderer but her killing record is long. She has killed ibex in Mongolia, elk in New Mexico and lions in Benin, hunted some 90 species across six continents and brought home more than 150 corporeal keepsakes from her travels.
For a former beauty queen and mother of four, the idea of travelling around the world on expeditions that cost hunters anywhere from $600 to $250,000 seems at odds. But that is part of the problem: “I’m attacked because I’m a woman, because I have boobs and hips,” she says.
And she is not alone: the number of female hunters in the U.S. surged 25 percent between 2006 and 2011, and many of them regularly find themselves on the receiving end of online abuse. The phenomenon of female hunters and the vitriol slung at the female hunting community is explored on Wednesday in Channel 4’s documentary The Women Who Kill Lions.
Opre could not feature due to “scheduling conflicts,” but is the only one to agree to this interview, so great are the repercussions for discussing the divisive issue in the public eye. Though she has developed “very thick skin” as a result of her brushes with so many malcontents, the rancour from people in the UK is so bad, she has had to block British accounts from accessing her 20,000 likes-strong Facebook page. Reactions from those in Spain and Australia have been similarly hostile.
“When you see a woman who kills an animal for sport, it’s unexpected, because it goes against our typical conceptions of what it is to be a woman,” explains Dr Bill C. Henry, a professor of psychology specialising in human-animal interactions at Denver’s Metropolitan State University. “That violation of our expectations generates a visceral response of ‘what’s wrong with you? Why are you not behaving the way we expect a woman to behave?’”.
He describes the motivations behind hunting as being similar to that of an “adventure sport, where people push themselves outside of their normal environment and get the opportunity to prove themselves” – something he notes can also be seen in women’s growing involvement with extreme sports such as the likes of ultra marathons and sky dives.
Opre, however, disagrees that hunting should be deemed a sport, particularly when preceded, as it often is, by the word ‘blood’, which “makes it sound like you’re Dracula, like you just want to see things die and get maimed.” She is trying to rebrand what she does as “conservationist hunting,” something she feels better explains the outcomes of her kills.
“I’m tired of hearing the words ‘trophy hunter’,” she blasts. “We’re helping to preserve wildlife; we hunt lions because we want to see populations of wildlife continue to grow. Many tribes hate lions and poison them because they eat their livestock, which means nobody gets the meat.
“The money we pay for hunts goes to schools, medical care and wells being drilled, the meat of the animal goes to the local tribe, as does its skin.” She was once asked to kill a hippopotamus so that locals would be well-fed; Opre says she took its leg to a nearby hospital with the sole aim of nourishing the women and children there, who are usually left with “scraps”. She is, she says, vehemently opposed to poaching, too, having previously “held a gun” on men she found in the illegal pursuit of elephant tusks, and always ensures that proper regulation of the species she is killing is carried out before embarking on each hunt.
“People think hunting is all about having trophies, but it’s not – this isn’t cricket. In that final moment before I pull the trigger, there’s a calm that comes over me; I really breathe it in, and when I walk up to an animal I’ve killed, I put my hand on its face and thank it for its life.
“It’s a very spiritual thing.”
The Women Who Kill Lions is on Channel 4 at 9pm Wednesday, June 29