What Does It Mean to ‘Kill Humanely’?

Some say predators, such as wolves, kill cruelly, whereas human hunters kill swiftly and painlessly — but neither notion is fair nor accurate.
By Bryan Welch
October/November 2011
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Do wolves have any less right to hunt to feed their families than human hunters do to feed their families?
PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO/JIM KRUGER
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Lately, I often find myself grasping for a noun to represent the word “humane.” According to the dictionary, that word is “humaneness.” But that’s hard to say, looks strange on paper and just sounds weird. So, by instinct, I usually grab the word “humanity.”

That also sounds wrong.

I need the word when I say something like, “The humaneness of concentrated feedlot operations is questionable.” Or, “Consumers today judge farmers more and more on their humaneness.”

Wouldn’t it sound better to say we are judged on our humanity?

But “humanity” is a dubious choice, not only because the dictionary says it’s wrong, but also because it has another meaning: “of or pertaining to human beings.”

That other meaning is, possibly, contradictory.

Those who coined the word “humane” probably picked a term that means “human” to describe compassion because they thought our species exemplified compassionate feeling. Possibly the first people to use the word “humane” also believed that our behavior was more compassionate than the behavior of other species.

We received several letters recently from people who, based on that belief, objected to our article about keystone predators, Keystone Species: How Predators Create Abundance and Stability. The article presented evidence in favor of the reintroduction of species such as wolves to the American wilderness because predators play a keystone role in the ecosystem, fostering more diversity and resilience in the natural community. We thought the story made a valid scientific point, but some readers objected to the idea of encouraging wolves to live in our wilderness. Wolves sometimes kill livestock, after all, and they kill deer and elk that may otherwise be killed for sport or perhaps to feed a human hunter’s family.

Some of the letter writers also asserted that wolves — unlike human hunters — kill cruelly. Wolves take new fawns and calves. They drag down and maul living animals. In contrast, several writers suggested that human hunters use their high-powered rifles, muskets and bows to kill swiftly and “humanely.”

According to some, the world is a more “humane” place when we discourage other predators and leave the killing up to humans. I don’t think that’s true.

Every generation of my family, as far back as I know, raised livestock and competed directly with animal predators. The past several generations raised sheep and cattle along the fringes of the North American wilderness in Oklahoma, California and Texas, and before that in Alabama and Virginia. They routinely killed wolves, mountain lions, hawks, raccoons and coyotes. My great uncle, Buford Oller, was a government trapper whose profession was killing troublesome coyotes and mountain lions in California’s Sierra Nevada foothills.

I grew up with a mythology that encouraged us to kill predators — even wipe them out if necessary to protect human livelihoods. We believed wolves, mountain lions and coyotes killed more cruelly than human beings. That was part of the reason it was OK to shoot, trap and poison them indiscriminately. If our predator eradication efforts were cruel, at least they were more humane than what the predators would have done to the sheep, cattle, deer and elk if we’d let them.

It wasn’t until the wolves and mountain lions were almost gone that some of us started to question these assumptions.

As I write this, just before sunrise on a summer morning in Kansas, a coyote is coincidentally moving through the cornfield just north of my watchful ewes, lambs and vigilant donkeys.

Today, we don’t kill predators on our farm. We don’t find it necessary. The mule and the donkeys do a pretty good job of discouraging the coyotes, bobcats and mountain lions we have in our area. We sacrifice a couple of little lambs or goats each year — fewer than we lose to inadequate mothering.

We’ve decided we would rather live in a world that includes wolves, mountain lions and wolverines, even if it means fewer elk, deer, cattle, goats and sheep.

I clean up a dozen chickens a year after an opossum, or more often a hawk, kills them and takes the best parts. But I love watching the red-tailed hawk soaring through the yard in the hunt. I get a kick out of seeing the opossum family scuttling across the lawn in the beam of my flashlight. I think our world would be a far poorer place without the wolf and the lion, or the hawk and the opossum.

It’s true there are probably few quicker and less painful ways to kill than with a perfectly aimed bullet to the brain or spine. Unfortunately, though, hunters seldom make that perfect shot. Hunting — whether with a rifle, musket or bow — is an enterprise full of uncertainty and random events. The target may die immediately, may run half a mile and then die, or may simply disappear, wounded and in pain, with a bullet or an arrow in its body.

U.S. hunters report losing hundreds of thousands of wounded deer every year. U.S. drivers report hitting about 1.5 million deer every year. And that’s just deer, not other wildlife. I remember peeling a western bluebird off the grill of my car years ago, and reflecting on the “humanitarian” implications of hurtling through nature at 70 mph in a 3,000-pound machine.

And then there’s industrialized agriculture, which has used its improved efficiencies to justify the invention of the chamber of horrors known as “confinement agriculture.” Plus, if you include the hundreds of thousands of acres of wildlife habitat we destroy to grow our corn, soybeans and coffee, well, humans may not deserve the right to describe our species’ role in the environment as “humane.”

I personally participate in more killing than most of my friends — or probably most people, for that matter. I kill some of our food animals myself, or I haul them to a slaughterhouse. I sometimes help customers kill the animals they’ve purchased. Once in a while I put an injured animal out of its misery. Seldom would I describe any of these deaths as “painless.” If you’ve been present at many deaths, you know “painless” is not a word that can often be truthfully applied. “Merciful” is generally the best we can do.

Painlessness is — in death as in life — a fantasy.

Mercy, on the other hand, is within our reach. Perhaps our desire to grant mercy gives us the truest logic behind the word “humaneness.” It’s the word that describes humanity’s attempts to be merciful, to take into account the feelings of other living creatures and to spare them suffering, whenever possible. So, when we kill to support ourselves, we kill decisively and efficiently. We do our best to minimize the fear and the pain.

Sometimes we even sacrifice territory and prey to other killers, setting aside places where wild predators can make their own livings. This humane impulse, indeed, doesn’t seem to be an aspiration shared by the wolves, the killer whales or the tigers. We are, by that narrow definition, the most “humane” of God’s creatures. We can do better, of course, and we aspire to do better. That, above all, is what makes us human.


Bryan Welch, Publisher and Editorial Director of MOTHER EARTH NEWS, is the author of Beautiful and Abundant: Building the World We Want. 


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Post a comment below.

 

Doug Gregory
10/27/2011 1:05:29 AM
Mr Welch, thank you for your article and thanks to 5 comments posted so far. We live in one of the Rocky Mountian states that has a booming wolf population and growing grizzly bear population. My wife and I both come from homesteading/farming/ranching families, some of whom are still struggling to make a living from the land, so we understand both sides of this coin to a degree. We are also hunters and fisherpersons who firmly believe in a swift and merciful end as possible to the animals we take to feed our family. We are very interested to hear from the rest of the country on their thoughts on this article.

BRYAN WELCH
10/25/2011 7:30:03 PM
Thanks for the feedback! It's great to hear your perspectives.

LOU NATHANIEL
10/25/2011 1:47:35 PM
Bravo!I came to read expecting to find some limp-wristed apology or indictment of people and or predators. What I found was a reasoned and reasonable article. Well done!

Stephen Gagne
10/25/2011 6:27:38 AM
This is a great article. I find it funny that some people forget that we and other animals are part of the natural world. I think that many people are vain, trying to change everything around them. Life (all life not just ours) is about balance. We should never forget that the more we try to change the world around us the balance of things will return. I personally am annoyed by notions like discouraging predators from killing and leaving it to the humans. Wow really how insane a notion. How about we leave nature to do what she does. Mother nature has been around longer than we humans let her do her job.

Juli brink
10/24/2011 2:18:19 PM
Absolutely!....love your article! And I agree.....I understand the need of hunting when there is an over population of a species...it helps keep them from starving and humans from losing more livestock than needed.....I understand hunting to feed our families....all animals, even predatos have every right to share the land as we do. If we destroy the natural balance, what will happen? We would surely destroy ourselves as well. Thank you for the article, I wish there was a more "merciful" way to control animal populations. Maybe someone will find a cheap and easy way and share it with the world so humans would be more likely to use it instead of previous methods.

Kelly Hooker
10/22/2011 3:40:41 PM
As I read the article, a single question came to mind...How can we expect wolves, tigers, lions etc to kill humanely when they aren't human? I still vividly remember after all these years, (not telling how many exactly) sitting in front of the TV watching Wild Kingdom with my parents. The slowest zebra in the herd had been targeted by the lioness and there was no doubt his life was coming to an end. As a young child I asked my father why is the lion so mean and cruel? His response, as an avid hunter, fisherman and farmer, was very simple, "she has cubs to feed and he was slowing down the herd." Seems like simple wisdom to last a lifetime. This wisdom fed our family through many winters with a freezer full of venison, fish and other game as well as animals raised on our land. I ask myself now how cruel is it for any animal, two or four legged to kill to feed itself or its family? While at the same time, how cruel is it to poison predators, severely wound them or "hunt" simply to take the best parts and leave the rest to rot in a field when so many are going to bed hungry? I grew up very simply knowing that when an animal, finned or furred, dies for my behalf it is owed the diginity of a swift death and the thanks for its life. We are all predators of some sort or another. How we survive really depends on what type of predator we are. Many Thanks to Mr. Welch for this article!








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