Perspective

Who loves animals more, a big-game hunter or a big-city dog lover? Inside ‘Trophy’ and its complex ideas

Philip Glass is walking through the African Mammal Hall at the Natural History Museum, pointing out which of the species on display he’s shot and killed in his life. There’s the giraffe and greater kudu, the cape buffalo and the hippopotamus. But the animal he’s most proud of hunting is the lion.

Last year, Glass — not the composer, but a rancher who breeds Dorper sheep in the middle of Texas — spent $100,000 for the opportunity to hunt a lion on a guided safari in Zimbabwe. You can actually watch him do it in a new documentary out this weekend, “Trophy,” which explores the ethically murky waters between trophy hunting — paying to kill wild, exotic creatures for sport — and animal conservation.

After Glass shoots the lion, cameras follow as he walks over to it, and his eyes fill with tears. He strokes the animal’s mane and holds its colossal, limp paw in his palm as he cries.

“That was obviously some hunter’s remorse from killing the king of beasts, that most awesome trophy — the pinnacle of hunting. There’s nothing better,” he recalls. “There’s all kinds of other things that are more rare, more expensive — but nothing compares to a lion. It’s hard to get some animal like that — an animal that is very smart and very nocturnal — to come to a place where you can actually have a chance to take a shot at him in the daytime. I could have easily hunted 21 days and never got a chance at it — and that’s part of it.”

Glass, 45, settles on a bench in the Hall of Birds across from a taxidermied Golden Eagle. He’s wearing a camouflaged button-up and matching cap that bear the name of his business, Half Circle Six Ranches. I’ve come to the museum to meet Glass and try to understand why one of his biggest goals in life is to hunt the “Big Five” — a lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros, the latter of which is the only one remaining on his list.

But I’m also curious about why he agreed to be the subject of this documentary, given what happened to Walter Palmer in 2015. Palmer, for those who don’t remember, was the Minnesotan dentist who killed a well-known African lion named Cecil on a hunting excursion similar to the one Glass went on. After news broke that Cecil had been killed, Palmer’s photo and personal information went viral. Protesters showed up at his dental office, he was publicly shamed by politicians and celebrities, and five months after Cecil’s death, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service added two subspecies of lion to the endangered species list so that trophy hunters will have a more difficult time legally killing them.

As a journalist, part of my job includes interviewing subjects whose views I often do not agree with or support. My personal feelings, however, are meant to be irrelevant so that my reporting remains unbiased. But with Glass, I’m fearful my own beliefs might creep into my line of questioning. After watching the man shoot both a lion and an elephant — and rejoice in those feats — I can’t help but feel like he’s, well, kind of a monster.

Like so many Americans today, I love my dog, spend too much money on toys he destroys in four seconds and post an embarrassing number of photos of him on my Instagram account. I won’t visit SeaWorld and even feel uncomfortable seeing animals in cages at the zoo. I’m not a vegetarian — yet, anyway, because I've recently started to feel a twinge of guilt any time I eat a grilled chicken breast.

So how am I supposed to connect with a trophy hunter?

This is the same quandary director Shaul Schwarz faced when he began making “Trophy” three years ago with his romantic partner, Christina Clusiau. The couple were sitting in their kitchen in Brooklyn, N.Y., when Schwarz stumbled across a trophy picture of a hunter standing over a dead animal.

“He was outraged. He couldn’t believe it,” remembers Clusiau, a former Time magazine photo editor. “I grew up in northern Minnesota, where hunting is what people do. But he grew up in Israel, where a deer is Bambi. So I was like, ‘Why are you so upset? Don’t judge it yet.’”

Their interest piqued, the pair decided to fly to Safari Club International, an annual Las Vegas convention where hunters convene to bid on safari trips, check out the latest riflery and even purchase fur coats. There, Schwarz and Clusiau met an outfitter who said she had the perfect subject for the filmmakers — Glass. He was heading to Namibia to hunt an elephant, so without even talking to him beforehand, the duo hopped on a plane with their camera gear to meet the hunter overseas.

When the group first met at an airport in Africa, the directors were upfront with Glass about their intentions.

“We were like, ‘Look, we don’t agree with you, necessarily. We’re liberals from New York,” says Schwarz, a photojournalist-turned-documentarian whose best-known film is 2013’s “Narco Cultura.” “‘But we promise you we’re not a little news bulletin that’s coming in, going to ask you a bunch of questions and screw you. We are going to let you give your opinion.’”

Glass says he could feel the filmmakers’ “heart,” and liked that they were interested in exploring how money from hunting trips had helped certain populations of animals in Africa to rebound. He also knew that they were talking to John Hume, a wealthy South African who keeps roughly 1,500 rhinoceros on his land and saws off their horns every two years to prevent poachers from slaughtering them. According to Hume, veterinarians say rhino horn is akin to human fingernails, so it doesn’t hurt to remove and grows back in a couple of years.

“I liked that they were exploring sustainable utilization,” Glass explains. “And the way I think of it is, somebody’s gotta tell this story: Why shouldn’t it be me? I live this life. I’m not just some hunter that’s a businessman and hunting is a hobby. Hunting is my life.”

Glass says he can’t remember a time when he wasn’t hunting. Sometimes, when he was a boy, he’d go for drives with his father in the country. If his dad spotted some game on the side of the road, he’d turn the truck off and without saying a word, push his son out onto the road to find and kill the camouflaged animal.

Ever since, he’s traveled the world to hunt, visiting Kyrgyzstan, Austria and Australia in search of local species. He’s spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on his hobby. He’s eaten all kinds of bizarre meat, from hippo to elephant, which he said was particularly tough.

“There’s a fallacy that trophy hunters go climb a mountain, shoot something, hack the head off, leave it to rot and walk down the hill,” he says, his voice raising. “And 99% of the time, that is not the case.”

Regardless of whether or not he consumes the meat of the animal he kills, there are no doubt plenty of viewers who will feel anger toward Glass. Even Alec Baldwin was unable to mask his disdain for him when he moderated a question-and-answer session with the hunter after a recent screening of the doc in the Hamptons.

“I can’t help but ask this, I’m sorry,” the actor said. “But if the lion had jumped up and bitten you in half — it was awake — would you think we should cry for you?”

During another public Q&A, this one at South by Southwest in March, one audience member became so outraged with Glass that she began yelling at him, shouting “What if I killed your children?” She was later removed by security.

(Glass does have kids, by the way, three of them: a 24-year-old son, 17-year-old daughter and 11-year-old boy, whom he takes hunting in the opening scene of “Trophy.”)

Meanwhile, the Orchard — the distribution company releasing the film — says it has been having trouble booking the documentary in theaters because the film features animals dying. Even so, the movie — which had a rare 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes on its opening day — will have a chance to reach a mass audience early next year, when it is set to air on CNN, just like “Blackfish” did in 2013.

As for Schwarz and Clusiau, even they admit to still having mixed feelings about the star of their documentary. Their most difficult moment during filming came while witnessing Glass hunt an elephant that had been traveling in a herd. Once the hunter got a shot off, the other elephants began running away and crying.

“I couldn’t take it — the family crying, trying to get away from this crazy American,” says Schwarz. “He was in his own world, high-fiving everyone.”

“And then we got close to the elephant and it was still alive,” Clusiau adds. “That was pretty awful.”

“That was the most horrible thing we filmed,” he said. “We were both, like, broken. And on that day, we hated Philip. But then that night, all the villagers who got to eat the elephant he shot kept coming to thank him, and it was genuine. It messes with you.”

From Glass’ perspective, society has become so urbanized that we’re too disconnected from the meat we consume. It’s easy, he believes, to cuddle our dogs and cats and coo at the lions we see on Animal Planet when “you’ve lived your whole life in New York City and never so much as pulled the head off a pigeon.”

“An animal does not have the same rights as a person,” he says. “That’s why I quote Genesis in the Bible, because God created the animals and created man to rule over them, specifically — to rule over, to have dominion over. But ruling over doesn’t mean smashing every last one of them and eating them all. It means caring for them and doing something better for them. And if doing something better for the animals involves hunting a few of them, why is that a bad thing? How can you argue with that?”

The way animal activists argue with that is by pointing out that the money from trophy hunting that is meant to go toward conservation rarely all ends up in the right hands. Oftentimes, according to Schwarz, it’s siphoned off to corrupt government officials.

Glass believes such “skimming off the top” is inevitable, pointing instead to the food, schools and clinics that have come as a result of trophy hunting in Africa. Furthermore, he argues, someone like me — someone who claims to love animals but has never killed one? He says I will never love an animal in the same way he does.

“That’s the part that’s hard for me to explain to you, because that’s in my heart,” he says, sincerely trying to convey his feelings to me. “Put yourself in my shoes. Walk up to the lion and do what I did — feeling the lion, smelling the lion, just revering this incredible animal that you’ve wished to hunt your whole life and looking at him and how he’s made. If you believe in evolution, you believe that lion was an accident. An accident. And in my heart, I could never accept that. I could never accept that that animal wasn’t spoken into existence by God himself, because it is perfectly designed.”

It's at this point in the interview when my feelings finally threaten to overwhelm my journalistic responsibility. Why, I ask, do you have to kill an animal to be close to one?

Sure, maybe I’ll never hold a lion’s paw in my hand, but when Glass did that, the animal was dead. From where I stand, that’s about the same as getting to see an orca up close in a tank at SeaWorld while knowing whales are actively suffering in captivity.

And the evolution argument? I’m cool with his religious beliefs, but why does evolution have to be an “accident?” If God put a lion on Earth, that’s fantastical. And if DNA mutated over time to create that lion, that’s pretty magical, too.

“If you believe in evolution, in my mind, you believe the lion is an accident,” he says, getting heated now. “It just randomly occurred, no different than a house cat. And the lion is not a house cat.”

I take a breath and realize arguing with Glass isn’t going to get me very far. Then I remember something Schwarz told me. Though he gets on well with Glass, the director is still personally disgusted with his hunting practices and even referred to him as a “psychopath” numerous times in our conversation.

“Do I understand why he wants to kill an elephant and hang it on his wall? Hell no. It’s not my cup of tea,” Schwarz says. “But can this psychopath help conserve? That’s the question.”

amy.kaufman@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter @AmyKinLA

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