When a friend of mine had a giant infestation of some kind of insect (I can’t remember which kind) in his house and had to call an exterminator, I briefly daydreamed about an imaginary society that placed such a high value on insect life that it didn’t have exterminators. In my hypothetical world, there were relocators who performed extremely tedious and very expensive operations to remove infestations without actually killing the insects. Because removing the insects was so involved, and because there was a strict prohibition on exterminating them, much more time and thought was put into ways of preventing infestations from occurring in the first place, so that they became a rare occurrence. If, in this society, you propose simply killing all the insects who infest a house, someone would have look at you like you had lost your mind. It would be like proposing to fix America’s rate of uninsured people by massacring the uninsured. In a certain sense, sure, the problem would be “solved”—but the solution would be barbaric and absurd.
I am not suggesting that it is practical, in our world as it exists now, to stop “exterminating” animals that inconvenience us. But I do think it’s worth considering how a society in which “exterminating” was never even considered an option would have developed. What if extermination was morally “off the table”?
Norway has just killed a “beloved” 1,300 pound walrus that wandered into the Oslo Fjord. She had been named Freya, after the Norse goddess of beauty and love, and many people took pictures of her. The public had been warned to keep away from the walrus, but they of course did not, and authorities concluded that having a walrus in an area where people swam was endangering human beings. And so Freya was extrajudicially executed by the state.
Authorities have justified killing the celebrity walrus. Frank Bakke-Jensen, the director general of the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries, said:
The decision to euthanize the walrus was made based on an overall assessment of the continued threat to human safety. … The public has disregarded the current recommendation to keep a clear distance to the walrus. Therefore … the possibility for potential harm to people was high and animal welfare was not being maintained.
Bakke-Jensen was “firm that this was the right call. We have great regard for animal welfare, but human life and safety must take precedence.” Norway’s prime minister backed the director general, saying, “I support the decision to euthanize Freya. … Sometimes we have to make unpopular decisions.” Though some animal rights campaigners have grumbled, the government’s reasoning is simple: Freya could have attacked someone. People wouldn’t stay away from her. Thus to protect people, Freya had to be killed. A senior adviser to Norway’s environmental agency and nature inspectorate said dangerous animals needed to be put down “as long as that does not endanger the survival of [the] population. There are 30,000 walruses in the north Atlantic.”
Could Freya not have been moved? In fact, the directorate of fisheries had “considered plans to relocate Feya,” but “several animal welfare concerns” and the “extensive complexity of such an operation made [the directorate] conclude that this was not a viable option.” Bakke-Jensen said moving Freya “could not guarantee her safety.”
Sounds compassionate, although it’s a little strange: surely euthanasia is a much greater threat to Freya’s safety than whatever risk came with moving her. We should dwell on the phrase “extensive complexity.”. Clearly a cost-benefit analysis was done, and it was concluded that it would just be too difficult to move Freya elsewhere.
I’d like to suggest, however, that while the Norwegian directorate of fisheries might insist otherwise, the calculus here shows a devaluation of animal life. Freya is not considered to have a right to live that is owed any respect. There is no “moral” dimension to killing her. Instead, the question is simply: would moving her be too difficult and how many other walruses are there? If there are enough other walruses, then this individual walrus’s life is worth less.
You can see that it’s a very different logic than the kind we apply to our own species. We do not decide whether to rescue a toddler from a well on the basis of whether it would be complicated and how many other toddlers there are in the world. And while I don’t think we should consider walruses equally valuable to toddlers, I would argue that the moral status of walruses should be far higher than it is today and that considerations of justice apply to walruses, too. For instance: was it fair that Freya had to pay with her life for the irresponsibility of humans? The reason for executing Freya was that people would not stop taking selfies near her and were endangering themselves. It might sound callous of me, but part of me thinks that these humans should be the ones to bear the risk of being attacked by a walrus if they choose to disregard warnings about not getting near the walrus.
While Norwegian authorities are adamant that they were right to kill Freya, it’s fairly clear that they operate without a conception of an animals’ “right to life.” If they believed Freya was entitled not to be killed, they wouldn’t be asking such questions as “Are there lots of other walruses?”1 This disregard for animals’ rights is ubiquitous. Consider this story from 2015: a camper in Montana saved a newborn moose that had been orphaned. Park authorities arrived and euthanized the baby moose (then “blew it up”), horrifying the camper. The Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) department “said it was not an issue of cruelty. It was an issue of policy.” They have “a policy not to rehabilitate moose, deer, and elk because of disease. … We are not staffed to take care of animals that transmit disease.” The FWP said, “We are not Grim Reapers; we are in this business because we are about animals.”
But a serious question to ask is: does the FWP have a right to take the life of a baby moose? Or does it have a moral obligation to take care of it? If a decision is made not to take care of animals that could harbor disease, is that a moral decision? I don’t think it is. We are too quick to kill inconvenient animals without confronting serious moral questions about what those animals deserve. The question is treated as a purely pragmatic one, with animals’ own wishes seen as irrelevant.
If we started down the path of believing animals have a right not to be killed, though, or that they deserve “due process,” we’d end up in fairly radical places. Not only would we have to question whether the Danish government was right to kill 17 million minks out of COVID-19 fears, but the very existence of mink farms would become deeply morally suspect. Many people don’t want to open the Pandora’s box of moral issues that come with contemplating animal rights, because it can lead you to the conclusion that it is a huge moral atrocity that we kill 10 billion animals for food in the U.S. annually. When you start to empathize with animals, to see the world as they see it, the euthanasia of one walrus is only the beginning. You will soon begin wondering whether our entire civilization, which “develops” land by clearing away habitats, which drives species to extinction, which has a colossal system of industrialized mass killing, is in fact based on abhorrent and indefensible attitudes toward other species.
I am sure the Norwegian officials who ordered Freya’s killing are certain they made the right call. But they didn’t. Their decision was based on a devaluing of Freya’s life. We should imagine the decisions we would make if we believed killing inconvenient animals was not, except in the rarest of cases, a morally acceptable option. We should treat animals as if they are entitled to remain alive.
As Abraham Rowe has written in Current Affairs, conservationist thinking often values animals at the population level rather than extending rights to individual animals: “Conservation as it exists today pays little attention to the actual interests or wellbeing of wild animals, like an individual toad, cricket, or giraffe, and instead places value in species. But species do not experience harms—individuals do.” Rowe concludes: “viewing nature as made of species instead of individuals allows us to gloss over the lives of the inhabitants of wild places, and instead focus on an achievable but ultimately flawed metric that turns living beings into little more than tallies on a spreadsheet.” ↩