US man accused in African lion death thought hunt was legal

In this frame grab taken from a November 2012 video made available by Paula French, a well-known, protected lion known as Cecil strolls around in Hwange National Park, in Hwange, Zimbabwe. Zimbabwean police said Tuesday, July 28, 2015 they are searching for Walter James Palmer, an American who allegedly shot Cecil with a crossbow while on a big game hunt in a killing that has outraged conservationists and others. (Paula French via AP)
In this frame grab taken from a November 2012 video made available by Paula French, a well-known, protected lion known as Cecil strolls around in Hwange National Park, in Hwange, Zimbabwe. Zimbabwean police said Tuesday, July 28, 2015 they are searching for Walter James Palmer, an American who allegedly shot Cecil with a crossbow while on a big game hunt in a killing that has outraged conservationists and others. (Paula French via AP)

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. (AP) — An avid Minnesota hunter accused of illegally killing a protected lion in Zimbabwe said Tuesday that he thought everything about his trip was legal and wasn’t aware of the animal’s status “until the end of the hunt.”

Walter Palmer, who has a felony record in the U.S. related to shooting a black bear in Wisconsin, released a statement through a public relations firm after being identified by Zimbabwean authorities as the American involved in the July hunt. They said Palmer is being sought on poaching charges, but Palmer said he hasn’t heard from U.S. or Zimbabwean authorities.

“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. I relied on the expertise of my local professional guides to ensure a legal hunt,” said Palmer, a dentist who lives in the Minneapolis suburb of Eden Prairie.

The 55-year-old was identified by the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, the Safari Operators Association of Zimbabwe and police as the American facing poaching charges for the crossbow killing of Cecil, a well-known and protected lion. Local authorities allege the lion was lured from a protected area and killed in early July. Zimbabwean conservationists said the American allegedly paid $50,000 for the trip.

The lion’s death has outraged animal conservationists and others, including U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, a Minnesota Democrat. In a statement late Tuesday, the congresswoman called for an investigation by the U.S. attorney’s office and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to see whether any U.S. laws were violated.

Palmer’s hired spokesman, Jon Austin, said he believed Palmer was in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area on Tuesday. No one answered the door at Palmer’s home, and a woman who came out of his dental office in nearby Bloomington said he wasn’t there or taking patients Tuesday. Phone calls to listed home numbers went unanswered.

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.

Doug Kelley, a former federal prosecutor and Palmer’s attorney in the bear case, was unavailable for immediate comment Tuesday, according to his assistant.

Palmer has several hunts on record with the Pope and Young Club, where archers register big game taken in North America for posterity, said Glenn Hisey, the club’s director of records. Hisey said he didn’t have immediate access to records showing the types and number of animals killed by Palmer but noted that club records involve legal hunts “taken under our rules of fair chase.”

Although African game wouldn’t be eligible, Hisey said he alerted the group’s board that Palmer’s ethics were being called into question. He said Palmer’s domestic records could be jeopardized if he’s found to have done something illegal abroad.

A Facebook page for Palmer’s Minnesota dental practice was taken offline Tuesday after users flooded it with comments condemning Palmer’s involvement in the hunt. Hundreds of similar comments inundated a page for his dental practice on the review platform Yelp, which before Tuesday had only three comments.

Palmer is properly licensed and able to practice in the state, according to the Minnesota Board of Dentistry. Board records show Palmer was the subject of a sexual harassment complaint settled in 2006, with Palmer admitting no wrongdoing and agreeing to pay a former receptionist more than $127,000.

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Bakst reported from St. Paul, Minnesota. Associated Press writer Hannah Cushman contributed to this report from Chicago.

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