It is killing whatever term you choose to call it.

Sign on slaughterhouse

Our complex attitudes to killing animals

Deep down in our consciences those of us with any empathy to animals are obviously uncomfortable about the act of killing them which manifests itself in our confused use of expressions to describe it. Whether a professional or layman, we seem to have a subconscious hang-up about discussing or contemplating what we mostly view as a taboo subject. For those with little empathy and who enjoy killing animals for fun and entertainment there is no issue

If we kill a fellow human without justification, we call it murder, and it is viewed a heinous crime unless legitimised by war, when we tend to use the word kill. When we deliberately and brutally kill a large group of humans, especially those of a particular nation or ethnic group, we use the terms genocide or massacre and when we legally terminate the life of a condemned person, we execute them. We almost exclusively reserve these words to describe human on human killing, but when it involves animals, for some inexplicable reason we refrain from using such terms as they appear to offend our sensibilities and prick our consciences if used in this context.

Instead we prefer to use more agreeable phraseology that we feel befits the occasion and the type of animal involved, such is our idiosyncratic approach to killing millions of them each day. In order to appease our sensibilities, we even manage to categorise certain animal groups as being more worthy of our compassion.

hunting, shooting, country pursuit

The act of euthanasia for companion animals has become almost a ritual”

The most popular generic term for the act of killing an animal is euthanasia, which derives from the Greek words Eu and thanotos meaning ‘well killing’ or ‘good killing’ and has been used since the 1600’s to describe mercy killing of both humans and animals. We tend to reserve its usage for companion animals, particularly dogs and cats, which we hold in more reverence because we view them as almost human family members and our friends.

The act of euthanasia for companion animals has become almost a ritual, carried out with extreme compassion, sensitivity and veneration as suits such a situation, and it is usually performed by a qualified veterinarian in calm circumstances by injection, and with a familiar face present, often in the owners’ home, and is as humane as possible, so different to the way we treat other animals in their final moment.

Some people though, still find this term too severe and so we use more assuaging phrases such as ‘putting to sleep’ or ‘putting out of its misery’, to make it appear less callous when we are discussing it, as though in some irrational way it makes it a more pleasant experience for both the animal and ourselves.

When it concerns farmed food animals our sympathies change, and we go out of our way to distance ourselves from any emotion or guilt. For a start we call them livestock instead of animals, live’ because we have to accept they are living creatures but alsostock’ because we need the assurance that they are also a commodity for us to utilise. We then employ the somewhat ruthless word of ‘slaughter’, the definition of which, in the context of humans, is brutal killing, but with animals just means killing for meat. Slaughter is of course an apt description as it is a rather brutal and ruthless death no matter how humanely done. We are also happy to use the same term for the place where the carnage takes place, so we call it a slaughterhouse in preference to a ‘euthanasia-house’ which we obviously find strangely unsettling because of its inference to pet animals.

We find using the word ‘harvesting’ more agreeable for the act of wholesale slaughter of animals.

When it involves wildlife our compassion unaccountably changes again, and we choose tocull them and the heartlessness of this term is borne out by the word’s definition which is ‘removing an inferior person or thing from a group’ and ‘something regarded as worthless, especially an unwanted or inferior animal removed from a herd’. Culling can involve just an individual, a certain species or millions of individuals.

Conservationists appear to find the word culling a little harsh in certain instances, so they find the term ‘harvesting’ more agreeable for the act of wholesale slaughter, usually with the tag that it is implemented in their long-term interest. But it doesn’t end there as different professions where killing animals is intrinsic also try to ease their sensibilities by using other phrases such as humane killing, hunting, management euthanasia and zoonasia.

We are psychologically uneasy about the killing of animals.

It is obvious that as a society we are uneasy with our various deeds of ending their lives and prefer to distance ourselves from any thoughts of their demise, but it doesn’t stop us from committing animal genocide the world over. The bottom line is that whichever term we choose to use they all mean the same thing – the intentional and premature ending of the life of a living creature.

As already mentioned, when it is time to put companion animals ‘to sleep‘ the procedure is treated with great compassion, sensitivity and veneration as it should be, but it does seem a pity that we cannot extend the same deference to all animals by at least giving them the courtesy of using the same terminology.

Related articles:

What is Zoonasia?

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The Shooting of Harambe the gorilla

Author: John Brookland

John Brookland has been passionate about animals from an early age and has always been more concerned about their individual health and well-being than any scientific or zoological interest. During his long and varied career in animal welfare in the U.K. and worldwide, he has unfortunately witnessed most of the horrors of animal cruelty there is to see and has gained extensive insight into animal welfare issues. On leaving school he trained as an RSPCA clinic assistant in London and later was manager of one of their veterinary hospitals and an animal centre. He was Chief Inspector and manager of the Bahamas Humane Society in Nassau and spent time in Trinidad advising on a humane stray dog control service, before becoming a deputy manager and animal health inspector at Heathrow's Animal Quarantine Centre. He then travelled the world for a conservation group investigating the capture and transport of wildlife for the pet trade and was an honorary consultant to the IUCN and CITES. He is now retired and still travelling the world with his partner to view wildlife and wild places and writing a blog and books on animals.