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Murdering Animals: A Book About Social and Species Justice

Piers Beirne writes about theriocide, speciesism, personhood, and animal rights.

Eliminating words of mass distortion

I've always been interested in the words that are used to refer to the killing of nonhuman animals (animals), and why so many people object to calling it "murder." In an essay called "Murder, She Didn't Write: Why Can Only Humans be Murdered?" I argued that it's time to change the language we use for writing about killing other animals. It's well known that the language we use to refer to other 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." (See also Johns and DellaSalab 2017).

I argued that 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. Thus, I was pleased to discover two essays in New Scientist magazine in which the word "murder" was used in the title to refer to nonhumans. 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." 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' 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. Another earlier essay in the print edition of New Scientist was called "Chimp leader assassinated by gang of underlings." "Assassinated" is a synonym for murder.

An interview with Piers Beirne about his new book Murdering Animals

"Theriocide—offers a remedy, however small, to the extensive privileging of human lives over those of other animals."

Because of my interest in words used to refer to the killing of other animals, I was pleased to learn of Dr. Piers Beirne's (with Ian O'Donnell and Janine Janssen) new book called Murdering Animals: Writings on Theriocide, Homicide and Nonspeciesist Criminology. Beirne is Professor of Sociology and Legal Studies at the University of Southern Maine. I asked if he could answer a few questions about his landmark book and gladly he agreed. Our interview went as follows.

Courtesy of Piers Beirne
Source: Courtesy of Piers Beirne

Why did you publish Murdering Animals?

This book is the outcome of my thinking over the past 20 years about the numerous sites at which we humans kill members of our own and of other animal species. I have always been a bit of a word freak and Murdering Animals begins and ends with the word “theriocide.” From the ancient Greek θηρίον (an animal other than a human) and the Latin cædere (to cut, fell or kill), theriocide is the term that I use to refer to those diverse human actions that cause the deaths of animals other than humans. Like the killing of one human by another (e.g., homicide, infanticide and femicide), a theriocide may be socially acceptable or unacceptable, legal or illegal. It may be intentional or unintentional. It may involve active maltreatment or passive neglect. Theriocides may occur one-on-one, in small groups or in invisibilised social institutions like factory farms and experimental laboratories.

I am a criminologist and so it is a matter of great interest to me why criminal law regards the overwhelming majority of theriocides as neither criminal nor abusive. For these deaths no one stands accused. No one is found guilty. There is no need for forgiveness.

Would you please summarize the scope of Murdering Animals?

It confronts the speciesism underlying the quite different social censures of homicide and theriocide. Bookended by the questions “What is theriocide?” and “Is theriocide murder?” Murdering Animals criss-crosses the intersections of criminology, human-animal studies, art history, and the fine and performing arts. Its substantive topics include the criminal prosecution and execution of justiciable animals in early modern Europe; images of hunters put on trial, convicted and executed by their prey in the upside-down world of the Dutch Golden Age (written by with Janine Janssen, professor of dependency relationships at Avans University in the Netherlands); the artist William Hogarth’s patriotic depictions of animals in 18th-century London; and the playwright J.M. Synge’s representation of parricide in fin de siècle Ireland (written with Ian O’Donnell, professor of criminology at University College Dublin).

Kreangkrai Indarodom, free downloads Dreamstime
Source: Kreangkrai Indarodom, free downloads Dreamstime

The sites of theriocide outlined in Murdering Animals are one-on-one cruelty and neglect; vivisection; hunting and blood sports; the destruction of wildlife habitat; the lethal trade in wildlife and animal body parts; state and state-corporate theriocide; factory farming; and war and militarism.

What are the book’s major messages?

There are two messages. If the killing of an animal by a human is as harmful to her as homicide is to a human, then the proper naming of such a death—theriocide—offers a remedy, however small, to the extensive privileging of human lives over those of other animals. This is the first message.

Murdering Animals advances two particular claims about animal rights. One is that animals’ chief right and the sine qua non of all their other rights is their right to life. Actually, of course, animals have the right not just to any life but to their own lives rather than to some version of what we think their lives should be. At a bare minimum, this means that we are obliged not to kill them. Animals also have the right to be treated with respect. This means, among other things, that we must never treat them as property.

The question of whether theriocide is or might be murder surely hinges on the well-reasoned construction of another claim, namely, that the animals whose killings are so described are persons or beings with irrevocable moral and legal rights. These rights are enshrined in the concept of legal personhood.1 If and only if animals acquire legal personhood does the question of whether they are capable of being murdered make sense. This is the book’s other message.

Murdering Animals discusses three of the most pressing issues about legal personhood for animals. These are: (1) the criteria of legal personhood; (2) the species that merit legal personhood; and (3) the sort of justice that those convicted of killing animals with legal personhood will be served. All three issues are tough nuts to crack.

Why do you think there's been such resistance to using the word "murder" to refer to the intentional and often horrific slaughter of nonhuman animals?

It is not so much that there is resistance to using the word murder to describe our slaughter of animals. It is more that we humans at present treat mass theriocide with denial, ignorance and schooled indifference. We prefer not to think about factory farms, for example, because they are bloody, messy, noisy and stinking places. Modern sensibilities dictate that they should remain socially and geographically invisible. Euphemisms rule here. Animals dissected and killed during vivisection are labeled “sacrifices,” “subjects," “objects,” and “products”. Animals killed by the military are called “collateral damage." Animals are “humanely” killed and “put to sleep” and “euthanized” in “shelters.” And there is “pest control” and “nuisance avoidance.” And so on, ad nauseam.

Do you have hope that things will change in the future and it will come to be that nonhumans can be murdered?

The first step in this direction is either judicial or statutory recognition that some species are entitled to legal personhood. I firmly believe this will happen soon. In the state of New York, for example, the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) has been edging closer and closer to success in its pursuit of common law writs of habeas corpus for chimpanzees. In Spain the Balearic parliament has granted effective legal personhood and basic rights to all Great Apes. In Argentina a court has decided that Sandra, a 28-year-old orangutan sequestered in a Buenos Aries zoo, is philosophically and legally a nonhuman person with basic rights to freedom and that she should therefore be released to a chimpanzee sanctuary. Other forward movements have happened in Spain, New Zealand, Colombia, and Brazil.

With the arrival of legal personhood for some species other than humans, it will perhaps eventually happen that some humans who commit theriocide will be prosecuted for murder.

Who is your intended audience?

I hope Murdering Animals will appeal to anyone interested in social and species justice.

Thank you, Piers, for a most informative and important interview. I'm a fan for calling intentional killing for what it is, namely, murder. I agree with you. "If the killing of an animal by a human is as harmful to her as homicide is to a human, then the proper naming of such a death—theriocide—offers a remedy, however small, to the extensive privileging of human lives over those of other animals." I do believe that theriocide should be considered murder, and I hope that people will embrace using the word "murder" for nonhumans, for that's what it is. I hope your book enjoys a broad interdisciplinary and global audience so that more and more people will partake in discussions and debates about the words that are used to refer to intentionally killing nonhumans.


1For more information on legal personhood for nonhumans please click here.


David Johns and Dominick DellaSalab. Caring, killing, euphemism and George Orwell: How language choice undercuts our mission. Biological Conservation 211, 174-176, 2017.