The 'It's Ok to Kill Animals Humanely' Apology Doesn't Work - Even for Wolves and Coyotes
An Animal Rights Article from


Marc Bekoff, Psychology Today / Animal Emotions
December 2018

Considering the well-being of wolves and coyotes sets a considerably higher bar than welfarism, because human interests don’t simply get to take precedence over what animals want and need.

No one has to apologize or excuse themselves for treating all beings, nonhuman and human, with more compassion, respect, and dignity. So, as we move into 2019 and beyond, a wonderful legacy would be to strive for peaceful coexistence and justice for all. That's not asking too much, is it?

wild Wolf
Southeast Alaskan Wolf - image by Jim Robertson, Animals in the Wild

A recent discussion on the "Western Carnivore Conservation List" (WCCL) group generated a lot of food for thought. It was centered on an essay by science writer Todd Wilkinson called "The New West: Montana Sen. Mike Phillips Plans to Draft Bill to Outlaw Predator Derbies." While everyone I know applauded Mike Phillips efforts, in this piece we also read, "He [Mike Phillips] isn’t opposed to hunting or trapping of coyotes, but Phillips says all wildlife, which is held in the public trust, is worthy of being treated in a humane way" and "If you are going to remove wolves or coyotes because there are identifiable problems, OK, do it if it’s necessary, but be strategic. Predator killing contests turn that on its head. When is needless, thoughtless killing ever justified?” Senator Phillips also is thinking of "drafting a companion bill that would prohibit people from being able to chase animals on public land with vehicles" This also is a good move, because scientific research shows that nonhuman animals (animals), similar to human animals, suffer physiologically and emotionally when being chased and stalked. I was surprised by the absence of words such as emotions, pain, suffering, and sentience, for example, in Mr. Wilkinson's piece. These are critical "variables" to consider in any discussion of who lives, who dies, and why.

I couldn't agree more that killing contests are reprehensible and should be stopped today. However, Senator Phillips' positions on hunting and trapping coyotes "humanely" and the strategic killing of wolves and coyotes, generated a good deal of discussion, both on and off the WCCL group list. Importantly, no one questioning his views was doing it in a personal way.

One very interesting response sent to the WCCL group called the "empathy test" was offered by lawyer, philosopher, and Executive Director at the Western Wildlife Conservancy, Kirk Robinson. He asked, "Which is most humane?"

a. being caught in a leg trap and left to starve

b. being caught in a leg trap and left to starve, but the trapper wins a prize

c. being caught in a leg trap and left to die of thirst

d. being caught in a leg trap then clubbed on the head

e. being burned alive

f. being run over by a snowmobile

g. being left alone

This is a very good way to lay out some of the options available to dealing with "problem" coyotes and other animals.

In another email to WCCL, Brooks Fahy, Executive Director of Predator Defense, noted, "Yet there are large national 'wildlife' organizations that remain silent on trapping." This is so. A discussion of the failure of large organizations to publicly speak out and to take a strong stand against trapping and killing other animals makes no sense. (For more discussion of the mission statements of various conservation groups see "Killing 'In the Name of Coexistence' Doesn't Make Much Sense," "Project Coyote Stands for Compassion and Coexistence," and links therein.)

It's also important to ask, "If trapping and hunting coyotes are OK as long as they're done 'humanely,' why isn't this so for wolves?" Most people will simply say that there are plenty of coyotes but far fewer wolves. Many conservation biologists play what I call the "numbers game" in that if there are lots of representatives of a given species, then it's OK for humans to kill some or allow them to be killed by other species. Individual lives don't really figure into the equation. For example, after wolves were reintroduced to the Yellowstone ecosystem, they decimated populations of coyotes. Numerous individual coyotes surely suffered as they were being killed, but for some people this was OK because the right thing to do was to bring wolves back home where they belong.

Along these lines, as this discussion was going on, someone asked me if "killing is okay if it's done humanely" is consistent with the basic guiding principles of compassionate conservation. It is not, and this view undermines what compassionate conservation is all about. Compassionate conservation is based on guiding principles including "First do no harm" and the life of each and every individual matters because each has inherent/intrinsic value. Allowing coyotes to be trapped and hunted and wolves to kill numerous coyotes, for example, ignores the pain, suffering, and death of individual animals. So, claiming it's Ok for humans to harm and to kill other animals if it's done humanely ignores their inherent value.

It also ignores that there is no way that the vast majority of animals who are killed by humans or by other nonhumans are going to be killed in any way that resembles "humanely." Some people have gone as far as to call it a cop-out, because it's difficult to imagine that anyone who claims that the victims will be killed humanely can really believe this given what we know about the horrific ways in which carnivores and other animals are harmed and killed. A current example centers on New Zealand's aggressive and violent war on wildlife using poisons such as 1080 and other brutal methods. Claiming that it's OK to kill millions upon millions of sentient beings as long as it's done humanely ignores the incredible amounts of pain and suffering the vast majority of individuals will endure before dying. There is no way that even a fraction of the animals who are killed using 1080 and other brutal methods will die humanely with compassion and empathy. And, of course, do they really care about the humans' kind thoughts?

Finally, it's important to ask what does "humane" really mean? Jessica Pierce and I discuss this at length in The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age noting that the word means vastly different things to different people, and often when it's used it's really a form of "humane-washing" because many people use it as a feel-good word to justify what they choose to do or allow to be done to other animals. In our book we develop what we call the science of animal well-being that focuses on individual animals that would not allow animals to be used and abused in the way that welfarism allows. Welfarism puts human needs first, and tries to accommodate animals within the “human needs first” framework. Well-being broadens the question of “what do animals want and need” beyond the welfare box, and tries to understand animal preferences from the animals’ point of view. For example, welfarism asks whether mink on a fur farm would prefer taller or shorter cages; well-being challenges the idea mink should be in battery cages on a fur farm in the first place, because they cannot have true well-being or “good lives” under such conditions—no matter how many welfare modifications we make. For many, welfarism also allows for the "humane" killing of other animals.

The science of animal well-being means that each and every individual counts, and it may come down to stopping a research project or closing down a venue in which animals are routinely harmed and killed, or not beginning such a project in the first place. Well-being sets a considerably higher bar than welfarism, because human interests don’t simply get to trump what animals want and need.

All in all, the "It's OK For Humans to Kill Other Animals if it's Done Humanely" apology or excuse doesn't really work. It fails millions upon millions of nonhuman animals who die after suffering deep and enduring pain at the hands of humans.

In upcoming years let's put killing animals on hold and leave future generations with a more compassionate and empathic ethos: No one has to apologize for treating all beings with respect and dignity

"Animals don't care if we didn't intend to hurt or kill them. They suffer anyway." (Eight-year old in conversation with me)

These are extremely difficult times for a vast number of nonhumans and killing some for others must be seriously questioned as we move into the future. It's 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. Surely some of the bright minds who kill other animals or allow them to be killed can develop and implement non-lethal methods so that the killing will stop once and for all. Killing "humanely" is not "killing softly."

We owe it to youngsters, who will inherit our planet and live as a part of it long after many of us are gone, to do the best we can for them so they get to enjoy a world filled with awe-inspiring and fascinating nonhumans and thriving ecosystems. We must understand that they are very passionate about the harms, pains, and death to which we humans subject millions upon million of other animals.

Today's youngsters are ambassadors for the future and we can only hope they get to enjoy a healthy and vibrant planet overflowing with respect, compassion, empathy, justice, and love for all beings. This is the least we can do for them. They should not have to apologize for not wanting to kill other animals, and they have nothing to defend.

I keep wondering how do you tell a youngster it's OK to kill other animals -- to take their life when they've really done nothing to deserve being killed other than to be who they are -- while at the same time saying we need a more compassionate, empathic, and peaceful world? Simply put, we owe it to future generations to leave them a more compassionate, empathic, and peaceful world, and it's difficult to imagine anyone arguing against this view.

No one has to apologize or excuse themselves for treating all beings, nonhuman and human, with more compassion, respect, and dignity. So, as we move into 2019 and beyond, a wonderful legacy would be to strive for peaceful coexistence and justice for all. That's not asking too much, is it?

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