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Cecil the lion in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe in 2012.Paula French/The Associated Press

The brutal death of a beautiful animal fills most people with sadness and disgust. It is an undeniably human response to be repelled by violence and cruelty, but there is something especially disturbing about the killing of Cecil, a dark-maned Zimbabwean lion, that has generated worldwide grief and despair.

Cecil lived in Zimbabwe's protected Hwange National Park, and his effortless leonine magnificence was a big tourist draw. In our market-based economy, he had considerably more value as a living exhibit than as the dead carcass he became after being lured outside the park and hunted down in a perverted version of sport by Walter Palmer, an American dentist who paid $50,000 for the thrill.

But the fundamental reason Cecil is being mourned is because he so perfectly expressed the awesomeness of existence in ways we can barely articulate or appreciate until we see a lion in his habitat, living the life he was made to live – before money, human arrogance and a twisted sense of pleasure turned this wonder of creation into a pathetic trophy, the saddest selfie ever.

A death like this leaves a huge void, because the imbalance between the corpse and the killer is so extreme: It shouldn't be this easy to extinguish the planet's greatness just to satisfy one demented tourist's need for self-glorification. The trivial indifference to life glimpsed in the dentist's dumbstruck souvenir photos, where extraordinary creatures are nullified and transformed into deferential props, fuels the outrage. There is a war-crime feeling about this whole experience, even if the Geneva Convention will never apply – how bloodless and uncaring do you need to be to slaughter highly evolved creatures on this scale, celebrate yourself doing it, and feel no shame?

Few people, thankfully, feel a powerful urge to kill an animal simply because it is rare and beautiful and has a beating heart. Those who take pleasure in violence and the suffering of others are rightly regarded as sociopaths, and one of the great markers of our erratic progress as humans is that we've managed to extend the sense of empathy beyond the family and the tribe to those who are not like us – up to and including the king of beasts.

Cruelty to animals is now recognized as a basic sign of inhumanity. Just as we don't wallow in public executions or exhibit our dead enemies' heads on pikes at the edge of town, we don't bait bears for pleasure on the street or skin cats just because we can. When star football player Michael Vick was revealed to be running a dog-fighting ring in 2007, incomprehensibility almost superseded disgust – few people could believe such archaic brutality existed in the modern world, let alone that a sports celebrity could find pleasure in it.

Most of the time when we talk about human progress, we get it wrong – we're not better than the thinkers and the doers who preceded us, as much as we want to believe that medical discoveries and technological breakthroughs have made us superior beings.

But in our relationship with other animals, we have developed a compassion and a capacity to co-exist that truly makes us better than our narrow-minded ancestors. Of course, it's imperfect: We find ways to override these evolving instincts, and it isn't always convincing to say we're humane enough to call out our inconsistencies. But the idea that pleasure could be derived from harming a living creature for sport or fun has become intolerable in most societies. The harmonious paradise of the biblical Genesis was a distant and unworldly ideal that after thousands of years has become an ecological model. Whatever lions are in relation to humans, they are not our enemy, let alone our trophy.

And yet inexplicably the torturing continues, masked under manly names like sport-hunting or trophy-hunting. When we're faced with outbreaks of such atavistic barbarity in the modern world, a gross violation of what ought to be a universal value of respect, we're properly horrified and disgusted. What's bad for animals is equally bad for us.

We know much better than our ancestors that lions are wonderfully complex social beings – Cecil was being studied by Oxford researchers at the time of his killing. Victorian big-game hunters at least could feign ignorance for the callous suffering they perpetrated as they decorated their castles with the hacked-off heads of their feline victims and elephant-foot umbrella stands. But in the 21st century, killing a lion or tiger for sport should be seen as an extreme act that is beyond justification, unless you're Vladimir Putin and don't have to answer to anyone. And then you're just a bully, with a lot of dead animals looking up to you.

Trophy hunters tie themselves in knots trying to justify their deadly pastime as a tradition, a necessity, a supreme test of courage, a rejection of urban softness and a reality check on meat-eating modernity's smooth hypocrisies. But their rhetoric is a distraction from harsher truths.

Our historical relationship with animals is indeed complicated, and no one would pretend that we've got it right when we lavish love on our cats and dogs and then look away when People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals posts a video of an abattoir's casual horrors.

But at least we know enough, and care enough, to feel shame. A trophy hunter, posing with the subservient corpse of a rhino or leopard or lion, takes pride as well as pleasure in ending the lives of these glorious beings. The photos, testifying to the killer's need for power and dominance, are reminiscent of the Islamic State's need for endless beheadings: Behold my power, behold my victims. The sense of misguided supremacy is disturbingly similar.