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'Lion King' animator paints moving tribute to Cecil

After the death of a well known Zimbabwean lion sparked international outrage, Disney animator Aaron Blaise has created a tribute that has gone viral on social media.

Aaron Blaise: Speed Paint - Cecil the Lion

How does an Oscar-nominated animator who's worked on Disney classics like "The Lion King" honor Cecil the Lion?

With a beautiful tribute portrait of Cecil floating in the clouds, looking down on his pride below, accompanied by a time-lapse of the image's creation and a quote from "The Lion King," which has now gone viral on social media.

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The artist behind the image is Aaron Blaise, a former Disney animator who worked on "The Lion King," “The Rescuers Down Under”, “Beauty and the Beast”, “Aladdin”, “Pocahontas”, “Mulan," and other films.

“As you may be able to tell I am a HUGE animal lover and it drives me crazy when I see these beautiful creatures destroyed for no good reason,” Mr. Blaise wrote on his website. “In fact, I’ve decided to get personally involved and hopefully our efforts can help educate people and prevent these horrible things from happening in the future. It’s not much, but hopefully it will make people think.”

Cecil was killed by American dentist Walter James Palmer on a hunting safari in Zimbabwe last month. Mr. Palmer insists his guides told him the hunt was legal but Zimbabwean officials say it was illegal, and the event sparked a global outrage, with celebrities, politicians, and even the UN speaking out against the practice.

The outrage over Cecil's death – protestors have vandalized Palmer's dental practice, home, and vacation home – underscores Americans' sensitivities about wild animals.

While widespread education efforts, growing awareness, and social media are all factors in rising sensitivities, Blaise's portrait points to another important element: Hollywood. 

Powerful, emotional animal films, like "Babe," "Charlotte's Web," "Chicken Run," "Born Free," and "Free Willy," have been instrumental in raising awareness about animal rights and wildlife conservation, say experts.

"Film and TV can both be very effective in bringing about social change," Wendy Higgins, EU communications director for Humane Society International/UK told The Christian Science Monitor. "Films like 'Born Free' will always have a special place in my heart."

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The 1966 British drama tells the real-life story of a Kenyan game warden and his wife who raise a trio of orphaned lion cubs to adulthood. Rather than send the domesticated animals to the zoo, they teach the lions to survive in the wild.

The film spawned a nonprofit, the Born Free Foundation, which aims to protect wildlife in their natural habitats and encourage conservation globally via litigation, investigation, and public education.

"There’s the lasting legacy of the film. I can’t go anywhere, especially in America, where people don’t know the film and start singing the theme song by John Barry," Adam Roberts, CEO of Born Free USA and the Born Free Foundation, told The Christian Science Monitor. "There’s something serious about the message of freedom and being a wild animal allowed to live in the wild that clearly resonates with people and has resonated in a lasting way."

"In terms of practical impact," Mr. Roberts added, the film is responsible for "the wholesale change in the last half century of how people look at captivity – recognizing that wild animals, especially those born in the wild, are meant to live in the wild."

Which is why it's not surprising that an animator behind "The Lion King," created a tribute image that scores of Americans raised on films like "Lion King," "Born Free," and "Free Willy," have found moving, and meaningful.