Rather Than Kill Animals “Softly,” Don’t Kill Them At All


Killing animals humanely in the name of conservation remains incredibly inhumane.

Developing a culture of coexistence between human and nonhuman animals

A recent essay (available online) titled International consensus principles for ethical wildlife control, by Dr. Sara Dubois, who works with the British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and nineteen colleagues representing a wide variety of views on killing nonhuman animals (animals) “in the name of conservation,” which usually comes down to killing other animals “in the name of native species” or “in the name of humans,” provides essential guidelines for future decisions that center on human-animal interactions in an increasingly human-dominated world. We are living in an epoch called the Anthropocene, often referred to as “the age of humanity.” In reality, for the billions of other animals on the receiving end of human interference causing incredible pain, suffering, and death for themselves, family members, friends, and non-target individuals of other species, this epoch should be called the rage of inhumanity.” Human domination of other species has really gotten out of hand.

The conclusion for this seminal essay reads:

Human–wildlife conflicts are commonly addressed by excluding, relocating, or lethally controlling animals with the goal of preserving public health and safety, protecting property, or conserving other valued wildlife. However, declining wildlife populations, a lack of efficacy of control methods in achieving desired outcomes, and changes in how people value animals have triggered widespread acknowledgment of the need for ethical and evidence-based approaches to managing such conflicts. We explored international perspectives on and experiences with human–wildlife conflicts to develop principles for ethical wildlife control. A diverse panel of 20 experts convened at a 2-day workshop and developed the principles through a facilitated engagement process and discussion. They determined that efforts to control wildlife should begin wherever possible by altering the human practices that cause human–wildlife conflict and by developing a culture of coexistence; be justified by evidence that significant harms are being caused to people, property, livelihoods, ecosystems, and/or other animals; have measurable outcome-based objectives that are clear, achievable, monitored, and adaptive; predictably minimize animal welfare harms to the fewest number of animals; be informed by community values as well as scientific, technical, and practical information; be integrated into plans for systematic long-term management; and be based on the specifics of the situation rather than negative labels (pest, overabundant) applied to the target species. We recommend that these principles guide development of international, national, and local standards and control decisions and implementation.

I congratulate this working group for beginning to formulate some plans centering on pre-killing decision-making, and recognize that it contains individuals who are against killing and those who have, and continue to support killing other animals for a variety of reasons, often using brutal and inhumane methods. Here, I want to emphasize one of their conclusions, namely, “efforts to control wildlife should begin wherever possible by altering the human practices that cause human–wildlife conflict and by developing a culture of coexistence.”

It’s not about killing other animals “softly,” it’s about not killing them at all

A recent summary of the above essay (available online) by Emma Marris titled How to kill wild animals humanely for conservation capsules some of its conclusions and also quotes a number of other people who were not involved in this workshop. Ms. Stone’s title, however, does not quite capture the tone of the discussion according to some of the group’s members who wrote to me about it. I was at the meeting at which this workshop was held, and while I didn’t attend the actual discussions, I heard summaries of it from different members.

First, a lot of discussion centered on controlling or managing other animals humanely, rather than on killing them. And, participants discussed alternatives to lethal control and the need for coming up with solutions that do not involve killing other animals, often called pests. Of course, these animals are “pests” because of what we have done to their homes, or because we were responsible for bringing them into various locations in the first place. So, some argue, when these animals become a problem for whatever reason, we need to remove them, and the easiest way to do it is to kill them. But, killing often doesn’t really work. It’s like putting a band-aid on a serious cut; it stops the bleeding temporarily but is hardly a long-term solution to the problem(s) at hand. So, the killing continues because it appears to work, but only in the short-term.

Ms. Marris’ essay raises a number of incredibly important points that demand open and wide-ranging discussion, including the use of anticoagulants that should be banned today. They are incredible inhumane and they “are the worst poisons in terms of welfare, says Ngaio Beausoleil, an animal-welfare researcher at Massey University in Palmerston North, New Zealand and an author on the paper.”

Along these lines, Ms. Marris writes, “Animals that [sic] ingest anticoagulants bleed to death over the course of days or weeks. But the poison’s use is safer for pets and children because it takes so long to kill. If a child accidentally eats bait laced with an anticoagulant, there is still time to get them to a hospital and administer the antidote. With faster-acting and more humane poisons such as cyanide, a family pet that inadvertently ate it could die before anyone could do anything about it. A third option, Beausoleil says, is to re-evaluate the need for killing the possums at all.” (my emphasis)

We also read that Island Conservation, located in Santa Cruz, California, also uses anticoagulants. Ms. Marris notes, “… the organization is actively working on replacing or refining their method for a more humane approach. The new guidelines are a call to innovators around the world, he [Gregg Howald, Island Conservation’s North American regional director and an author on the paper] says.” Mr. Howald also is quoted as saying, “Bring us something that will work; we will be the first to adopt it.” While we’re waiting for something to work, it would be wonderful and precedent setting for other organizations that permit killing for Island Conservation to stop using anticoagulants and to put killing on hold.

Compassionate conservation, anthrozoology, and conservation psychologists to the rescue: Removing killing other animals from the menu of alternatives

Recall that the working group concluded, “efforts to control wildlife should begin wherever possible by altering the human practices that cause human–wildlife conflict and by developing a culture of coexistence.” So, it’s not about killing other animals “softly,” it’s about not killing them at all. We need to change our ways.

Of course, it’s incredibly challenging to come up with non-lethal solutions for controlling animals we call “pests” or for whom we use other words or phrases that devalue them as if they’re non-sentient objects, but that’s what has to be done. A moratorium on killing other animals will, I’m sure, lead to the development of humane and non-killing ways to control these individuals. And, it will force people to recognize that we can’t have it every way we want it, namely, to cause animals to become problems or pests, decide they need to be controlled, and choose brutal and inhumane lethal methods that seem to get the job done, only to come to realize that they do not. Along these lines, the working group concluded:

Decisions to control wildlife should be based on the specifics of the situation, not negative labels applied to the target species. When animals are labeled with terms such as introduced, abundant, and pest, broad approaches to control are sometimes advocated and little attention is paid to the specifics of the case. Wildlife control should not be undertaken just because a negatively labeled species is present.

We also need a major shift in people’s mindset and hearts. We need more than ever a “culture of coexistence” as we move on in the Anthropocene. How we develop it will require cooperation from people with diverse views on whether or not, and when and how, human interests should trump those of nonhuman animals. Researchers interested in compassionate conservation (please also see Compassionate Conservation: More than ‘Welfarism Gone Wild’,” “No reason to kill ‘problem’ wildlife,” and other essays here along with numerous links) along with anthrozoologists and conservation psychologists who study human-animal relationships will play a vital role, as will non-academics who just want the killing to stop.

“International consensus principles for ethical wildlife control” should be required reading for anyone interested in human-animal relationships, all those who work on conservation issues centering on human-nonhuman interactions, and would be perfect for all sorts of courses in human-animal studies. It is that timely and important.

As the dominant species on Earth and in other ecosystems, we simply cannot continue to have it any way we want it. We must change how we interact with other animals and recognize that developing a culture of coexistence means that we need to move away from the paradigm in which our interests trump those of other animals because it’s the easiest path to follow. It’s also a path filled with untold pain, suffering, and death, and it’s time for the killing to stop. For more in this topic please see Warren Cornwall’s excellent essay titled There Will be Blood,” “Killing Barred Owls to Save Spotted Owls? Problems From Hell,” “Thousands of Cormorants to be Killed: There Will be Blood, and links therein.

Its high time to change the bloody history and present and future course of many conservation practices. There doesn’t have to be blood and we must do all we can to stop the blood flow.

Marc Bekoff’s latest books are Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce) will be published in April 2017 and Canine Confidential: An Insider’s Guide to the Best Lives For Dogs and Us will be published in early 2018. His homepage is marcbekoff.com

This essay first appeared in Psychology Today on March 1st, 2017

Featured image: non-native possum poisoned to death in New Zealand. Credit travelwayoflife, CC BY-SA 2.0 / cropped

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About Author

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and co-founder with Jane Goodall of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. He has won many awards for his scientific research including the Exemplar Award from the Animal Behavior Society and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Marc has published more than 1000 essays (popular, scientific, and book chapters), 30 books, and has edited three encyclopedias. Click to see author's profile.

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