New Zealand's "Threatened Species Ambassador" Reckons We Should Reflect On An Animal's Life When We Kill Them "With Kindness"

Killing with kindness is neither the panacea nor is it an acceptable excuse for slaughtering other animals

It’s a well-known fact that New Zealand is at war with much of its wildlife. Of course, not all New Zealanders agree with this onslaught, the goal of which is to remove all non-native species by 2050. However, many do — I’m told as much as 98% of the population — and along the way, youngsters are being encouraged to kill nonhumans who were first brought there by humans and now face being slaughtered by humans who have decided that they’re animals non grata. For more details about various aspects of New Zealand’s war with wildlife, please see "Imprinting Kids for Violence Toward Animals," "Scapegoating Possums: Science, Psychology, and Words of War," "Long-Term Effects of Violence Toward Animals by Youngsters," "Youngsters Encouraged to Kill Possum Joeys in New Zealand," “Violence Toward Animals: "Can You Please Help My Daughter?" and many links therein.

As with many other conflicts about whether and how other animals should be killed when they’re labeled “pests,” the debates center on trading off individuals of one species for the good of members of other species. And, as in the case of New Zealand’s war on wildlife, there are ecological and ethical considerations. Thus, people differ on whether or not the targeted victims are actually directly or causally responsible for claims about the decline or loss of other species, and they surely differ on if and how other animals should be killed.

I’ve tried to keep up with what’s happening down under and weekly, sometimes daily, I receive emails from people with different views. I’m against the wanton and brutal killing and remain unconvinced that the animals who are being killed are solely and causally responsible for New Zealand’s loss of native species. I prefer to focus on the ethics of the slaughter because there is no way that all of the individuals who are targeted will be killed with kindness or with empathy and compassion despite people saying this is how it should be done. The mass slaughter is so wide-ranging and the hate with which some people approach these sentient beings is so intense that it seems inarguable that a good number of these animals will be brutally slaughtered despite the best intentions of some of the killers. And, along the way, some youngsters are being taught to thoroughly disrespect these animals as feeling individuals whose emotional lives are very much like those of the companion animals with whom they share their homes.

Killing with kindness

Last night a number of people sent me a link to an essay by Nicola Toki, the Threatened Species Ambassador of New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DoC). Ms. Toki’s essay is called “Killing with kindness.” It’s no surprise that she supports New Zealand’s goal of being predator free by 2050. Ms. Toki focuses more on the ecological argument and writes of critics of the mass slaughter “in their vociferous opposition, all ecological context was lost.” This is not so, because there are many people, including scientists, who argue that killing the targeted animals will not solve the ecological problems. There also are many people who are ethically against killing other animals even if it people attempt to do it with kindness. She goes on to write of the mass killings, “We’re doing this out of necessity because these introduced mammals are killers that our ancient wildlife could never hope to keep up with, and because we simply do not have the benefit of time. In order to give our wildlife a chance to survive and thrive, it is necessary that we remove the threats.”

Ms. Toki also writes, “I also reckon that we should encourage our children to take a moment to think about the animal’s life that has just been taken. Many hunters and indigenous cultures pay respect to the animal they have dispatched, so why not spare a thought for the animals we find in our traps? I have changed my views on this over time. I once spoke of the need for ‘everyone to go out and snot some small furry animal,’ and now I think that was flippant and unkind. It’s not easy to kill another living thing, and nor should it be.”

Ms. Toki’s change of heart and the word “dispatch” caught my eye. Like the word “cull,” “dispatch” is a synonym for killing, but many people like to sanitize slaughter by using words that don’t focus on what actually is being done or by using words that make it seem “more scientific.” Scientists like to use the word “sacrifice” to refer to the killing of animals who have been used in various sorts of experiments.

A general definition of the word “dispatch” is “to send off or away with promptness or speed” or “to kill with quick efficiency.” But let’s be very clear — these healthy animals are not necessarily going to be killed with “quick efficiency” nor are they going to be euthanized, which would be killing them with kindness to relieve them of an incurable disease or interminable pain, for example. The individuals who are to be killed are going to have their lives ended using brutal methods that will cause a good deal of pain and suffering, regardless of the intention of the killers. And, non-target animals also will be killed.

Why are people grinning when they hold up corpses of animals they killed and take selfies?

Ms. Toki goes on to claim, “My take on the rise of ‘stoat selfies’ [taken by kids and others] is that the grins aren’t about the death of a fellow animal, but the celebration of yet another important step in the journey to bringing back our native wildlife.” She really doesn’t know this unless people were asked why they were grinning, which as far as I can determine they weren’t. And, at least one study has shown that the reasons people smile after killing another animal are far more complex than people imagined (for more discussion on this topic please see “Trophy Hunters' Smiles Show How Much They Like to Kill” and links therein). Learning about why people hunt also isn’t as straight forward as some claim. For more details on this topic please see “Why People Hunt: The Psychology of Killing Other Animals” in which the results of a recent and very interesting study on why people hunt by Alena Ebeling-Schuld and Chris Darimont called "Online hunting forums identify achievement as prominent among multiple satisfactions” are discussed. This study is well worth paying attention to and has significant practical applications, because hunting plays a role in wildlife management practices and some people claim that killing other animals is important for maintaining the integrity of diverse ecosystems.

Returning to Ms. Toki’s claim that grinning is really associated with the bringing back of native wildlife, as much as I would like to believe this is the case in even a small number of instances, I’d like to see some research conducted on how much youngsters and adults really know about the ecological questions at hand. And, of course, even if some youngsters (and adults) have this goal in mind, killing other animals to achieve it is teaching them inhumane lessons about how we should interact with individuals of other species. Rather than killing them, we should work to peacefully coexist with members of other species.

The last sentence of Ms. Toki’s essay shows how vacuous claims about killing with kindness can be. She writes, “The key to getting it right is to hold onto empathy for other living things along the way.” So, killing other animals is just fine as long as the killers feel for the animals they’re slaughtering. I can imagine some people saying or thinking something like, “I know I’m causing you pain as I kill you, but please understand I’m doing it with kindness because it has to be done.” Of course, the animals who are killed couldn’t care less about how their one and only life is taken.

Killing with kindness is neither the panacea nor is it an acceptable excuse for slaughtering other animals

Killing with kindness is not the panacea nor is it an acceptable excuse for slaughtering other animals. And, using the poison 1080, completely removes any iota of kindness from the equation. Being poisoned with 1080 makes for a horrific way to die, plain and simple. So, let’s stop the babble about “killing with kindness.”

While I’m sure there are some people who want to kill with kindness, I can’t believe that all or many of the killers will feel empathy for each of the millions upon millions of individuals who will be killed. In a previous essay called “Rather Than Kill Animals "Softly," Don't Kill Them at All,” I noted that killing animals “in the name of conservation” remains incredibly inhumane and should be stopped. I’m not alone in arguing for this position.

There also are many lessons to be learned from following the basic tenets of the rapidly growing international and interdisciplinary field called compassionate conservation. These are “First do no harm” and the life of every individual matters. Researchers interested in compassionate conservation along with anthrozoologists and conservation psychologists who study human-animal relationships will play a vital role in developing, implementing, and enforcing non-lethal methods of dealing with the situations at hand, as will non-academics who just want the killing to stop. (For more details about compassionate conservation, please also see "Compassionate Conservation: More than 'Welfarism Gone Wild'" and other essays here along with numerous links therein.) 

Developing a culture of coexistence: There doesn’t have to be blood

In an essay titled “International consensus principles for ethical wildlife control,” a working group of researchers concluded, "efforts to control wildlife should begin wherever possible by altering the human practices that cause human–wildlife conflict and by developing a culture of coexistence." So, it's not about killing other animals "softly," it's about not killing them at all. We need to change our ways. It’s high time to change the bloody history and present and future course of many conservation practices.

The war on wildlife is not a love affair gone bad

It’s impossible to accept that killing with kindness will, in fact, prevail. The war on wildlife who are no longer wanted is not a love affair gone bad. Indeed, people who have criticized the mass killing campaign have been publicly insulted and threatened with violence in retaliation for their views by people who have come to hate the critters who are supposedly causing all the problems. In an earlier essay Ms. Toki is quoted as saying, “We relate our national identity to our native wildlife. And everybody hates possums." I’d surely like to see the data behind this claim, for I know for a fact that not everyone hates them or the other targeted animals. For more discussion on how “alt facts” can sway public opinion and actions please see “Does Everybody Really Hate Possums? The Bandwagon Effect” and references therein. In an essay titled "Predator Free 2050 and The Call to Arms," we read "This logic is so entrenched in New Zealander’s psyches that very few dare to question it."

Many who believe that what they’re doing is right, including educators and scientists, are willing to allow youngsters to carry the killing torch into the future to develop of culture of killing so that certain animals,their children, and other descendants for whom violent hatred prevails will continue to be viewed and slaughtered because they’re the enemy.

Ms. Toki’s essay raises a number of important points and I hope it will serve as a catalyst for people to think deeply about what is being planned and currently being done to rid New Zealand of unwanted beings. Mass killing campaigns are ethically repugnant, and telling another innocent animal you’re sorry for taking their life or that you’re doing it as kindly as possible because it’s the only way to solve the problems at hand, means nothing to the individual being targeted. It may make a human feel better, but that’s all it does.

There doesn't have to be blood “in the name of conservation” and we must do all we can to stop the blood flow. In a human-dominated world in which human-other animal conflicts are and will be inevitable, wouldn’t this be a wonderful precedent for the future? The time to begin is right now, and New Zealanders can proudly carry the torches of coexistence and kindness into the future for the world to see and to emulate.

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; The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson); and The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce). Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do will be published in early 2018. Learn more at

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