Murder, She Didn't Write: Why Can Only Humans be Murdered?

It's time to change the language we use for writing about killing other animals.

Posted Feb 12, 2017

Words of mass distortion 

It's well known that the language we use to refer to nonhuman animals (animals) can be used to hide or sanitize the often rather egregious ways in which we use, harm, and kill them. Words such as euthanize, dispatch, harvest, and cull are frequently used to refer to instances in which people with different motivations and intentions, kill healthy animals, usually "in the name of humans." It's about time these polite words are changed to the harsher word, murder, because that's what it really is. However, time again, others and I are told that only humans can be murdered, because that's the way legal systems view killing other-than-human animals.

Two recent essays in New Scientist magazine in which the word "murder" is used in the title to refer to nonhumans caught my eye, and got me to revisit that restricted use of the word. The first, by Veronika Meduna called (in the print edition) "Murder most foul," centers on New Zealand's goal of killing all animals they call pests by 2050. The title of the online version of Medua's essay is called "The great extermination: How New Zealand will end alien species," and only accessible to subscribers. What's important here is that the word "murder" is used in the print edition to refer to humans killing nonhuman animals. 

The second essay, by Chelsea Whyte, is called "Chimps in gang 'murder' of an ex-tyrant." While the print edition uses scare quotes around murder, the online title, with open access," is titled "Chimps beat up, murder and then cannibalise their former tyrant." Whyte writes, "The murder victim, a West African chimpanzee called Foudouko, had been beaten with rocks and sticks, stomped on and then cannibalised by his own community." It should be noted that these sorts of between group murders are extremely rare. 

Trophy hunting is trophy murder

A third essay called "'Hunting is not about killing for me': Trophy hunter sees shooting big game as form of conservation" also caught my eye because of my interests in an activity called "trophy hunting." I've previously argued that trophy hunting as a form of gratuitous violence can, and should, be called "trophy murder" (please see "The Psychology and Thrill of Trophy Hunting: Is it Criminal?"). In this essay, about trophy hunter Jacine Jadresko, she claims, "I have a huge respect for each species that I hunt and each animal that I hunt and they're each very special to me." When I read or hear statements like this I always say something like "I'm glad I'm not special." Whether or not trophy hunting is valuable in any meaningful way to conservation is a hotly debated topic, beyond the scope of this essay. Regardless, it is a form of premeditated killing and should be called what it is, namely, murder. 

Killing many zood animals is not euthanasia 

Other examples of healthy nonhumans being killed for a variety of reasons occur in zoos. Many healthy zood animals are killed when they don't fit into a zoo's breeding program, although they are young and could have been sent to other places to live. Killing zoo animals is often called "euthanasia," or mercy killing, but it really is what I call "zoothanasia," and, once again, could rightly be called murder (for more on zoothanasia please see "'Zoothanasia' Is Not Euthanasia: Words Matter," "'Animal 'Euthanasia' Is Often Slaughter: Consider Kangaroos," "Killing Healthy Animals in Zoos: 'Zoothanasia' is a Reality," and links therein). A recent example centers on Packy, a 54-year old male elephant who was recently killed at the Oregon Zoo. (Please see "Packy Elephant Killed — Zoothanized — at the Oregon Zoo!, "Oregon Zoo Murders Packy The Elephant," and links therein.)

An increasing number of people agree that killing another animal should be called murder

If nonhumans can murder one another, why can't humans be accused of murdering nonhumans? I fully understand that legal systems do not recognize that nonhumans can be murdered. Regardless, it's about time the words that are used when humans kill other animals be changed to murder, without scare quotes, because that's what it really is.

People who have been asked the question "Is killing an animal murder?" show increasing support for using the word. On October 18, 2015, 58 percent of the respondents voted “yes” and 42 percent voted “no.” Today, the numbers are 69 percent "yes" and 31 percent "no." 

I look forward to the time when we read something like, "Murder she or he wrote" when referring to humans killing otherwise healthy animals "in the name of humans." When polite euphemisms such as dispatching, harvesting, and culling that sanitize or deflect attention away from what actually was done are replaced with harsher or unpleasant words, a move that is increasingly occurring in media and one that is favored by an increasing number of humans, nonhumans surely will benefit. Words of mass distortion need to be phased out once and for all. 

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: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce) will be published in April 2017 and Canine Confidential: An Insider’s Guide to the Best Lives For Dogs and Us will be published in early 2018.