What Does It Mean to ‘Kill Humanely’?

1 / 3
Do wolves have any less right to hunt to feed their families than human hunters do to feed their families?
2 / 3
Keystone predators, such as mountain lions, support diversity.
3 / 3
Farmers use dogs and barn cats to scare away poultry-loving predators such as raccoons.

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.