Should We Kill Animals Who Presumably Attack Humans?

One hunter says "yes" absent supporting data that it works

Posted Jul 14, 2012

A friend of mine just sent me a link to an essay in which the author claims we should kill animals who kill humans. Throughout, the author, Jackson Landers, refers to nonhumans as "that" and "it" but clearly the animals about whom he writes are sentient beings and should be referred to as "who".

Landers is a hunter who spent a year and a half hunting and eating invasive nonhuman species throughout North America, the details of which are chronicled in his forthcoming book called Eating Aliens.

Landers' essay is a bit too sensationalistic and fast for my liking. He begins with a story about an alligator who bit off an arm of a teenager in a river in southwest Florida and also writes about Australian "crocodile hunter" Steve Irwin who was killed when a stingray's barb pierced his heart. Next he writes about "man-eating" predators, noting along the way that attacks really are rather rare—"hunting humans is not normal behavior among predators." Landers also writes about a huge crocodile named Gustave living in Burundi who presumably had eaten as many as 300 people as of 2008. 

Are presumed  "man-eaters" really repeat performers? Is killing them "good for their species?"

One of Landers' claims is that if the rare "man-eater" is killed it will be good for others of their species. This suggestion, and that's all it is, sounds interesting, but detailed data about the conservation benefits of killing are lacking. 

Furthermore, we don't really know if there are repeat killers. Landers writes: "These repeat performances are typical among man-eaters of many species. Bears, lions, tigers, leopards, alligators, crocodiles, cougars. Possibly sharks as well, assuming (my emphasis) the 1916 attacks that inspired Jaws were in fact the work of a single shark. The man-eater is exceptional. It isn't a normal predator. The idea that the man-eater is an innocent totem of nature while man is the guilty interloper simply does not hold up to scrutiny." 

Once again, Landers provides no data for his claim that there really are repeat performers. Indeed, I've asked people about this many times because of my own long-term interests in the behavior of predators who very rarely do harm human beings.

We are the most invasive species who has ever roamed Earth, redecorating nature willy-nilly with little regard about the lives of the other animals into whose homes and lives we've trespassed. When we choose to live or go where dangerous animals live there is a risk involved.

I'd be the first to agree that there are chance encounters with predators when we roam about in their living rooms, having personally had some very close calls (see also) with black bears and cougars who live around my house. But I wouldn't ever want the individuals I met harmed or killed because they harmed or killed me, and I have never seen any data that suggest that killing them would help others of their kind.

Landers conclusion also is a bit over the top. He writes: "Unless the species' numbers are so low that genetic diversity is in immediate danger, there is no advantage to letting an animal like Gustave live. The consequences of leaving a man-eater in the wild, whether it is the brown bear that devoured Timothy Treadwell or the gator that swam off with Kaleb Langdale's arm, are terrible for nearly everyone concerned."

Really? Did the bear who killed Timothy Treadwell and his female partner or the alligator who attacked Kaleb Langdale have a previous record of attacking humans? 

The reason for letting these animals live, including presumed "man-eaters", is that they were doing what comes naturally to them, as horrific and sad as the results of their tragic attacks are. I am not saying what they did is just fine, but if they're caught and reliably identified I'd like to see them go to a place where they can live out their lives rather than be killed. Reliable identification of wild animals has always been a problem in these and other scenarios and we need to have more than merely guesses when the life of an animal is on the line. That individuals "get the taste for blood" after attacking a human seems to be one of those myths that lives on and on. 

Who lives, who dies, and why? Should we kill in the name of conservation?

The growing field of compassionate conservation (see also) deals with questions including "Who lives, who dies, and why?" and "Should we kill in the name of conservation?" These and other questions that involve taking an animal's life deserve more than Landers' cursory analyses and decidedly anthropocentric garble filled with suppositions that lead him to claim they should be killed because everyone concerned will benefit.