Image Credit: Can Stock Photo

Discarding euphemisms: the fate of animals deserves truthful words

“You can’t be afraid of words that speak the truth, even if it’s an unpleasant truth….I don’t like words that hide the truth.” ~ George Carlin

Ajolt of paralyzing pain tears through the bear’s body. The animal staggers — his heart pounding, almost touching the bullet that lodged itself deep into the throbbing lungs. In an instant, blood floods the organs but somehow, surprisingly, it doesn’t spill out onto the ground, as if in a lonely act of mercy, it refused to aid the pursuers with a traceable path. No use, though. No use. Racked with an anguishing pain — confused and disoriented — the bear bumps into trees, sways from side to side, his oozing, gaping wound scraping against the bark. This is it; this is it. The agony sets in; it ensnares the weakening limbs. From the parted jaw, blood comes pouring out between the wispy gasps of air. The world loses its familiarity; it gets dimmer, narrower. All of the sudden, at the edge of the earth, the wobbly body stumbles and rolls down the rocky slope. …The descent is slow at first, almost gentle, but then it gets faster and faster as the wind rustles furiously and the sky above keeps blinking into the panicky eyes. This is it. This is it.

“It was a great hunt with a great guide that ended with 4 nice bears being harvested” (a quote from one of the hunters enjoying hunting vacations in Alaska).

“Hunter harvest averaged 336 grizzly bears annually for 1978–1996 compared to 236 for 1997–2000” (a note from Grizzly Bear Harvest Management in British Columbia: Background Report).

“15 California sea lions euthanized off the west coast of Vancouver Island” ( a headline from News1130)

Words do matter. Language is power. In Politics and the English Language, George Orwell writes, “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.” Indeed, since the only way for us to make sense of unseen reality is to have it translated into words, language can become a mind-control tool to shape desired beliefs, visions and values. Throughout history, its use (and misuse) has influenced and justified actions in both public and private spheres, casting a large shadow on how these actions are interpreted. Haig A. Bosmajin, professor of speech communication at the University of Washington, in his The Language of Oppression shows that throughout human history the rhetorical wordplay of anti-Semitism, racism, Native-American derision, and sexism was employed “to dehumanize human beings and ‘justify’ their suppression and even their extermination.” Words or phrases that are incessantly promoted by the media, scholars, and politicians slowly and insidiously slip into our subconscious to become an inherent part of our daily vocabulary. We no longer question their meaning; they become an alienable part of ‘us’, shaping our vision of the surrounding world and the way we interact with it.

Years of education — formal or informal — about wildlife management and conservation have shaped our views and beliefs about the natural world. Words like ‘crop’, ‘harvest’, ‘stock’, ‘cull’, ‘yield’, and ‘surplus’ used in biological sciences and by government institutions in reference to wildlife have been so broadly and indiscriminately disseminated that they have achieved a predictable outcome — stripping us of compassion towards non-human animals. Once they are turned into ‘crops’ to be ‘utilized’ and ‘harvested’ for food, all the majestic creatures we had so much affection for and were so fascinated by as children are no longer permitted to feel pain or experience anguish. Words have rendered their suffering irrelevant. In the end, as a result of verbal reframing, it is not what really happens in blood-stained fields and forests that determines our emotional reactions but rather the words we use to make what happens there palatable.

Image credit: Pixabay

But what do animals have in common with ripened crops? Do they stick out from the dirt like stalks of wheat to be instantly snapped off when the time is right? Are they the source of ‘surplus’ to be quantitatively evaluated and efficiently ‘harvested’? Where does this language come from?

In a broad generalization, agricultural metaphors that have structured the field of wildlife management can be traced back to 1933. It is when Aldo Leopold — considered by many a father of the scientific field of wildlife management — published a book entitled Game Management. The book was a response to his growing concern about the decline of wildlife populations and loss of habitats. Since Leopold was an avid hunter, his concerns and efforts were mostly self-serving or utilitarian in nature and focused primarily on maintaining healthy populations of animals for hunting purposes. He applied the principles of sustained yield forestry that he had been trained in to promote sustainable game populations. In his book, Leopold put forward the idea of game management as “the art of making land produce sustained annual crops of wild game for recreational use.” The notion of wildlife management was thus boiled down to manipulating wildlife populations for the purpose of “maintaining or enhancing the yield” of specific game species to ensure fruitful ‘harvest’ experiences.

Today we take a more holistic approach, and ecological insights drive our management strategies. Yet agricultural metaphors continue to inform our practices, turning wildlife management into a purely scientific endeavour that is morally neutral, dispassionately enforced and devoid of concern for the suffering and pain of ‘managed’ animals. Wildlife management textbooks, scientific publications, government documents and hunting outfitters’ bulletins all embrace the plant-based agricultural vocabulary. For example, in a single lecture posted on line as a part of Wildlife Management course by North Carolina State University, the word ‘yield’ is used 20 times and ‘harvest’ 45 times. Similarly, government management plans for various species in Canada rarely use the word “kill” or “killing” compared to the word ‘harvest’ (e.g., Integrated Fisheries Management Plan for Atlantic Seals or Grizzly Bear Harvest Management in British Columbia: Background Report). In the Black Bear Management Plan for Ontario, the word ‘kill’ is used only twice while ‘harvest’ appears at least 30 times. Strangely, this document refers to “killing” when discussing ‘problem’ bears or protection of one’s property: in other words, only when an animal is ‘destroyed’ (applying yet another euphemism) for purposes other than scientific ‘management’ do we have the decency to call this action by its true name. Indeed, reading such documents can be an almost surreal experience, their content incomprehensible to the child or any indigenous society that has a more intimate and tangible relationship with the animal world.

The question arises, therefore, why such language has not become obsolete despite all that we know about the animal world. Why does it persist? Is the euphemistic approach employed to describe systematic killing of animals in the name of wildlife ‘management’ merely a reflection of Leopold’s teachings? Keeping up with the tradition? Or is it, perhaps, a useful self-defense mechanism, ‘a helping hand’ that pries us away — physically and emotionally — from furry four-legged creatures we wanted to cuddle when we were children? I would argue that it is the latter. These words are blindfolds put over our eyes or drips of alcohol seeping into our bloodstream; they are meant to numb our senses and make us do, justify, and accept what we know is cruel, horrific, and heart-wrenching. They become useful sedatives easing the horror of watching a dying animal catch his last breath, make his last step, the light in his eyes fading away. As Frans de Waal, a primatologist and professor of psychology at Emory University, in a New York Times article writes, “When our ancestors moved from hunting to farming, they lost respect for animals and began to look at themselves as the rulers of nature. In order to justify how they treated other species, they had to play down their intelligence and deny them a soul.”

That is why words matter. They make us kind; they make us laugh; they make us cry. We avoid the truth and harshness of the language by softening it with euphemisms. Sometimes, a harmless or even genuinely empathetic rationale guides us, as when we say that someone ‘has passed’ or ‘moved on’ instead of ‘died’. Often, however, and I would argue it is the case with wildlife management, diluting the plight of slaughtered animals in the concoction of euphemisms has more sinister undertones.

No, it is not empathy we are after. In contrast to saying ‘passed’ or ‘moved on’ when referring to a person who died, using the words ‘harvest’ or ‘cull’ to describe a systematic annihilation of animals reveals heartlessness rather than compassion. In the final display of our lack of mercy, animals are deprived of their dignity not only by the very act of having been cold-heartedly killed but also by the way this decimation is presented to the public. This is wrong. Deep down we know it, we feel it, and our euphemistic strategies reveal this uneasiness, this inner struggle.

Image credit: Pixabay

No, wildlife is not a ‘cultivated crop’ destined to be reaped and gathered when the right time comes. Harvesting of animals has nothing to do with the image of a farmer mowing the hay and turning it into bales as the setting sun beams down on swaying stalks. It has nothing to do with picking up grapes and turning them into wine. It has nothing to do with nurturing the land — plowing, planting, weeding and watering — and then watching the efforts of this hard work bear fruit.

No, killing animals is not like that; it snuffs out life instead of nurturing it. Animals are not harvested or culled. They are killed, murdered, slaughtered. We don’t euthanize sea lions. We shoot them in the head. Only when we start using a different language — the language that is truthful to the reality it depicts — will we be able to awaken ourselves from a slumber of our indifference and take responsibility for how we relate to nature.

Yes, we do have to stop sanitizing our actions and our science with misleading words. The discourse peppered with euphemisms hinders communication and vitiates the way we see the reality. For years, we have been taught to believe that science aims to be objective and devoid of emotions. But science — especially management science — is never objective because it serves subjectively defined goals and prerogatives. And since it operates in the realms of the reality that entails pain, suffering, and death, it cannot bypass the whole spectrum of emotions or even morality. An ecologist and evolutionary biologist, David Haskel, once said in a New York Times piece, “Science deepens our intimacy with the world. But there is a danger in an exclusively scientific way of thinking…Science is one story… true but not complete, and the world cannot be encompassed in one story.” The same thinking permeates the writings of the former Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Marc Bekoff. In his book The Emotional Lives of Animals he argues, “Respecting, protecting, and loving animals wouldn’t compromise science, nor would it mean we’d respect, protect, and love humans less.”

Image credit: Pixabay

Let’s not look at the natural world only through graphs, models and diagrams. Let us instead feel and cherish it. Let us see each animal as an individual creature basking in the sun, caring for its little ones, rolling over under the tree, or chasing after a fly. Let’s invite compassion into our hearts and embrace the warmth it brings with it. Without such compassion we falter as humans. There is still time but it’s running out, faster than we know. As we begin to understand how nature works and discover treasures that lie in the earth’s biodiversity, we are also realizing that we are destroying this richness at an unprecedented rate.

That is why we have to free ourselves from the linguistic traps that distort our perception of animals. They are not an agricultural product but sentient beings who feel joy and pain, and who bleed, suffer, and die like you and I. Adopting the language that is truthful to the reality it depicts will help crumble the wall that detaches us from animals and numbs us to their suffering. It could also lead us to reconsidering the very premises upon which our wildlife ‘management’ is based and practiced. We owe such reconsideration both to our own humanity and to fellow creatures we share this planet with.

Article was published on OBECA

and The Center for Wildlife Ethics at http://www.centerforwildlifeethics.org/euphemisms