I've been long interested in how the word "euthanasia" is misused in different branches of science and in venues where nonhuman animals (animals) are killed because they're no longer needed. Euthanasia is defined as "the practice of intentionally ending a life in order to relieve pain and suffering." All of the various definitions of "euthanasia," including those in essays in Psychology Today, cash it out as a form of mercy killing that is done in the animal's best interests. Nonetheless, some researchers and others continue to misuse the word, often as a way to sanitize what they're really doing to otherwise healthy animals, namely, heartlessly slaughtering them. In Australia, for example, the commercial slaughter of millions of adult kangaroos for food results in countless dependent youngsters, also called joeys, left to suffer and die because their mothers have been, or will be, killed. The study about which I write below refers to killing joeys by stamping on their head or decapitating them as euthanasia, which it is not.
According to Dr. Donald Broom, emeritus professor of animal welfare at the University of Cambridge's Department of Veterinary Medicine, "the origin of the word [euthanasia] is ‘good death’ with the implication that all aspects are good. Euthanasia is the killing of an individual for its own benefit. The word is often misused by those who wish to kill the animal for their own benefit. We have another term, ‘humane killing’, for situations such as the killing of animals for human food, or in laboratories, or because they are unwanted pets. ‘Euthanasia’ should not be the term used in any of these circumstances unless it is a good death in the sense that it is for the benefit of that individual animal." (Broom, D.M. 2007. Quality of life means welfare: how is it related to other concepts and assessed? Animal Welfare, (16 suppl): 45-53.
Many people have asked me to write on the misuse of the word "euthanasia," so this short essay is a springboard to get people to weigh in and to ask those who misuse it to stop, because they're not really fooling anyone.
Killing healthy animals in zoos isn't euthanasia, it's "zoothanasia"
In a previous essay titled "'Zoothanasia' Is Not Euthanasia: Words Matter" I noted that zoos often claim that a healthy individual was euthanized, but this is not really so. Because of this misuse of the word I coined the term "zoothanasia" to refer to these unnecessary killings, because killing these animals is not euthanasia -- mercy killing -- or what some zoo administrators like to call "management euthanasia." A recent and well-known case of zoothanasia involved a young healthy male giraffe, Marius, who was publicly killed at the Copenhagen zoo because he couldn't be used to make more giraffes.
As I was writing up a talk for upcoming meetings on Compassionate Conservation I came across a report called "Improving the humaneness of commercial kangaroo harvesting" in which the researchers also tried to sanitize what they were doing when looking for humane ways to kill healthy kangaroo joeys, also called pouch-young. (The word "harvesting" also means killing.) You can read the entire report if you choose, but here I just want to provide some snippets about the methods used by "kangaroo shooters" who were observed by the researchers, and the suffering the joeys endured, that were justified "in the name of animal welfare."
On page 18 we read: Below is a summary of the methods we observed being used to euthanase (sic) kangaroo young:
• Small, furless pouch young (usually <10cm from head to tail) were dealt with using
one of the following methods:
• with the very small 'jelly bean' size young, whilst they were still attached to the
teat they were decapitated using a finger and thumb to separate the head from the
• they were removed from the teat then taken out of the pouch and either firmly
stamped on or decapitated by removing the head from the body with either a
knife or with the thumb and finger; or
• if the pouch was not checked and a small furless pouch was present then it was
left to die attached to the teat whilst still in the pouch. The pouch was then
removed and discarded as part of the field dressing of the female carcase.
• Larger furless (usually >10cm from head to tail), partially furred and furred pouch
young were removed from the pouch and killed by:
• a single forceful blow to the head. This was done by holding the joey by the
hindquarters and swinging it in an arc so that its head hit a hard object such as a
large rock or side of the vehicle tray; or
• placing on the ground and firmly stomping on the head; or
• holding by the hindquarters and hitting the head firmly with a heavy object (e.g.
iron bar); or
• occasionally larger furred young were left to escape.
• If young-at-foot were present they were:
• killed with a gunshot (the one we observed was killed with a shot to the head); or
• left to escape.
"Good animal welfare" can't be "good enough"
Clearly, many youngsters suffered intense pain before they died, and the researchers knew this because they were looking for the least harmful and most humane way to kill the baby kangaroos. All of their efforts are performed under the guise of being concerned with animal welfare. Clearly, from the animals' point of view, "good welfare" can't be "good enough." Even the "most humane" ways of slaughtering the youngsters wasn't pain-free or especially humane.
The objectivity with which the researchers write is truly off-putting. They were killing healthy babies in a variety of ways, many known to cause pain and suffering. On page 22 we read (my emphasis): "It was also observed that when joeys were held by the back legs and hit on the head with an iron bar they struggled and moved their head, making it a more difficult target to hit. These animals sometimes required two or more blows to cause unconsciousness, which is unacceptable as it could result in pain and suffering prior to losing consciousness. With blunt trauma to the head, applying the blow to the correct position with sufficient force to cause immediate insensibility is essential for this method to be humane."
Kangaroos and other animals aren't unfeeling disposable objects
As they heartlessly discuss their results, as if kangaroos are merely unfeeling and disposable objects, the authors also write about other studies in which individuals of a number of different species were subjected to various forms of brutal killing to see which was the "most humane." I wonder if they would also do this to dogs, with whom kangaroos and other mammals share the same neural substrates for emotions.
This sort of "research" needs to be brought to an end. I hope others will also weigh in when they read about studies like this or when they read about how healthy animals were supposedly "euthanized" for this or that reason when, in fact, the killing wasn't done to relieve interminable pain and suffering. Instead, the killing was done "in the name of science," or "in the name of animal welfare," or "in the name of breeding programs." It's not asking too much of researchers, zoo administrators, and others to "come clean" about what they're doing, namely, brutally slaughtering healthy animals who didn't deserve to die.
Note: As if this sort of "research" isn't heinous enough, I just learned that Australia now plans to kill two million feral cats. It's a good thing that at the University of Technology, Sydney, there is a Centre for Compassionate Conservation, the only one in the world.
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, and Rewilding our hearts: Building pathways of compassion and coexistence. The Jane effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson) has recently been published. (marcbekoff.com; @MarcBekoff)