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Animal Rights

Why Can Only Humans Be Murdered? What About Non-Human Animals?

It's time to change the language we use to discuss the killing of other species.

Photo Credit: Ammit Jack/Shutterstock

It's well known that the language we use to refer to nonhuman animals can be used to hide or sanitize the often 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. It's about time these polite words are changed to the harsher word, murder, because that's what it really is. However, time again, we 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 consider pests by 2050.

The second essay, by Chelsea Whyte, is called "Chimps in gang 'murder' their ex-tyrant." While the print edition uses scare quotes around murder, the online version is titled "Chimps beat up, murder and then cannibalize 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 cannibalized by his own community."

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 the activity called "trophy hunting." (I've previously argued that trophy hunting as a form of gratuitous violence can, and should, be called "trophy murder.") In the essay, trophy hunter Jacine Jadresko 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 think, 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 zoo animals is not euthanasia 

Other examples of healthy nonhumans being killed for a variety of reasons occur in zoos. Many healthy zoo 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 is actually what I call "zoothanasia," and once again, could rightly be called murder. A recent example centers on Packy, a 54-year-old male elephant who was recently killed at the Oregon Zoo. 

Increasing number of people agree that killing animals 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% of the respondents voted “yes” and 42% voted “no.” Today, the numbers are 69% "yes" and 31% "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 the gruesome reality 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. 

This article was originally published by Psychology Today.

Marc Bekoff’s latest book is The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce). Canine Confidential: An Insider’s Guide to the Best Lives For Dogs and Us will be published in early 2018. His homepage is


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