Meet the mum of four who hunts lions for fun

Olivia Opre is a for­mer beauty queen and mother of four – and a pro­lific big-game hunter. Here, she ex­plains to Char­lotte Lyt­ton why she was at­tracted to this shock­ing sport

The Daily Telegraph - - Living & Features -

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, and un­der­stand­ably, un­suc­cess­fully – to com­mu­ni­cate to her de­trac­tors since she took up hunt­ing aged 16; Opre re­ceives waves of “vi­cious” mes­sages, 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 says. “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 Isil, 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 the hunter’s cause. This Fri­day will mark a year since Min­nesota den­tist Wal­ter Palmer killed Ce­cil the lion, and sparked world­wide out­rage. Palmer re­ceived death threats, saw pro­test­ers out­side his den­tal prac­tice urg­ing him to “rot in hell” and the killing was con­demned by every­one, from Ricky Ger­vais to Mia Far­row. In the weeks that fol­lowed, David Cameron spoke out on the sub­ject, a chil­dren’s book and beanie baby ded­i­cated to Ce­cil were pro­duced, and the lion was posthu­mously named Time mag­a­zine’s Most In­flu­en­tial An­i­mal of 2016. Ce­cil’s Wikipedia page will serve as a re­minder of what took place 12 months ago – en­tire books could be filled list­ing the trib­utes that poured in from all over the world. “He was the vic­tim of an ex­treme at­tack,” says Opre – mean­ing, of course, Palmer, not the lion. “What hap­pened was blown out of pro­por­tion, and that man’s life has been de­stroyed over hearsay.” She is re­fer­ring to the claims that the killing had been il­le­gal. How­ever, crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tions cleared Palmer of any wrong­do­ing – he had paid $50,000 to go on a le­gal hunt that had been or­gan­ised by South African out­fit­ters. Opre puts the 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 claims, adding “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 90 species across six con­ti­nents and brought home more than 150 keep­sakes.

Trav­el­ling the world to go on hunts that cost from $600 to $250,000 seems odd for a for­mer beauty queen and mother of four. But that is part of the prob­lem: “I’m at­tacked be­cause I’m a woman, be­cause I have boobs and hips,” she claims.

And she is not alone: the num­ber of fe­male hunters in the US rose 25 per cent be­tween 2006 and 2011, and many of them re­ceive online abuse. This grow­ing phe­nom­e­non of fe­male hunters and the vit­riol slung at them is ex­plored in tomorrow’s Channel 4 doc­u­men­tary The Women Who Kill Lions.

Opre could not fea­ture in the pro­gramme due to “sched­ul­ing con­flicts,” but is the only one to agree to this in­ter­view, so great are the repercussions for dis­cussing this is­sue. Though she has de­vel­oped “very thick skin”, the ran­cour from peo­ple in the UK is so bad, she has had to block Bri­tish ac­counts from ac­cess­ing her Face­book page. Re­ac­tions from peo­ple 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,” says 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 says the mo­ti­va­tion be­hind hunt­ing is 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 ul­tra-marathons and sky dives.

Opre, how­ever, says hunt­ing should not be deemed a sport, and es­pe­cially not a “blood sport”, 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”, which she feels bet­ter ex­plains the out­comes of her kills.

“I’m tired of hear­ing the words ‘tro­phy hunter’,” she says. “We’re help­ing to pre­serve wildlife; we hunt lions be­cause we want pop­u­la­tions of wildlife to 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 tomorrow at 9pm

Olivia Opre, above, de­scribes killing game as ‘spir­i­tual’. Left, at home with some of her 150 keep­sakes

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