Two signs posted on the door of a nondescript dental office here asked passers-by to mourn the death of Cecil, a lion who was lured off his sanctuary and killed during a game hunt this month in Zimbabwe.
“WE ARE CECIL,” one read; “#CatLivesMatter,” read another. Nearby was a sign with a darker message for the dentist who said he killed the cat: “ROT IN HELL.”
In the hours since Dr. Walter J. Palmer apologized for killing the lion, he has gone from a dentist and longtime hunting enthusiast to a villain at the center of a firestorm over the ethics of big-game trophy hunting.
“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,” Dr. Palmer said in a statement. “I relied on the expertise of my local professional guides to ensure a legal hunt.”
The outrage and attention surrounding the lion’s death online caused Dr. Palmer to keep his office closed on Wednesday as he joined an ever-expanding group of people who have become targets of Internet vigilantism, facing a seemingly endless shaming until the next issue comes along.
After Zimbabwean officials identified Dr. Palmer as the hunter, activists used search engines to find his contact information and social media to share information about his business and his family, stirring a fever pitch of anger strong enough to effectively dismantle his digital life. Angry people sent a surge of traffic to Dr. Palmer’s website, which was taken offline. Vitriolic reviews flooded his Yelp page. A Facebook page titled “Shame Lion Killer Dr. Walter Palmer and River Bluff Dental” drew thousands of users. Dr. Palmer’s face was scrubbed from industry websites.
Even a local crisis management expert was pulled in to the fray. The specialist, Jon Austin, who operates a Minneapolis-based communications firm, said in an email that he had been asked only to circulate Dr. Palmer’s initial statement.
On Wednesday, Mr. Austin ended his involvement with the matter, but not before his own Yelp page was flooded by angry commenters.
At Dr. Palmer’s office here, a memorial to the lion sprung up with red roses and more than a dozen plush toys, many of them jungle animals, strewn outside the locked front door.
“Murderer! Terrorist!” one protester, Rachel Augusta, screamed into a megaphone.
No one answered repeated knocks and doorbell rings at Dr. Palmer’s large, stucco house in an affluent neighborhood. And his neighbors would not talk.
Trophy hunting, undertaken by wealthy hunters who pay tens of thousands of dollars for licenses to kill protected animals for trophies and sport, has long been a subject of global debate. Hunting advocates and some conservationists argue that, if done responsibly, the selling of expensive licenses to big-game hunters can help pay for efforts to protect endangered species.
A 2009 study by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature estimated that trophy hunters killed around 600 lions a year. Last October, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to list the African lion as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, a move that would also establish guidelines for permitting the importing of lion trophies. That proposal is under review.
Cecil had been closely studied by researchers at the University of Oxford since 2008 as part of efforts to study a decline in Africa’s lion population and to better understand the threats the animals face. The university’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit said in a statement that Cecil’s adult “brothers” and cubs would probably be killed by other male lions seeking dominance in the community.
Debates over trophy hunting have long been held among conservationists and animal rights activists without reaching the mainstream. When a Texas man reportedly paid $350,000 to hunt and kill a black rhinoceros in Namibia this year, the furor largely stayed within that community. But the death of Cecil, a 13-year-old lion who wandered out of his sanctuary in a national park in Zimbabwe, struck a chord.
Dr. Palmer had paid around $54,000 to hunt the animal, according to news reports, and in 2009, he paid $45,000 at an auction to help preserve an elk habitat in California. He was profiled that year in The New York Times when he shot and killed an elk from 75 yards with a compound bow in pursuit of a bowhunting record.
According to the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, the lion was shot with a crossbow after he was lured out of the sanctuary, following the scent of food. Cecil, well known to those who visited Hwange National Park in western Zimbabwe for his jet black mane, was only injured by the arrow. The hunters tracked him for about two days before he was killed with a gun, conservation officials said. He was beheaded and skinned, his corpse left to rot.
Two Zimbabwean men, a farm owner and a professional hunter who are accused of helping Dr. Palmer, appeared in court on Wednesday on poaching charges. Zimbabwean officials said Dr. Palmer was also being sought on poaching charges.
Erin Flior, who specializes in crisis management at the public relations firm Levick, said that frequent cases of widespread social media outrage had made digital crisis and reputation management a growing specialty. She recalled cases in which clients had to move or consider changing their names.
“The fact that it crosses my desk at all means it happens too much, in my opinion,” Ms. Flior said. “It really tends to be instances where a very educated, tech-savvy crowd has jumped on board that those kind of instances get taken to that level where personal information is being released.”