Two wild animals that strayed from their habitual habitats and came into close proximity to humans were recently killed in high-profile cases. The life of Freya the walrus was ended by officials in Oslo on August 14, 2022, allegedly because the animal posed a threat to humans. Four days earlier, the life of a beluga whale lost in the French Seine during a failed rescue attempt had come to an end.
Many people tracked the whereabouts of these animals, concerned about their welfare, and were shocked and saddened by their deaths. A private fundraiser has even been set up to erect a statue of Freya in Oslo, whose creators argue the walrus should not have been killed.
While the decisions to end the lives of the beluga whale and Freya the walrus were based on different factors, they both ultimately expose the contentious nature of animal euthanasia, which is often referred to as “mercy killing.”
As a researcher of end-of-life situations and the decision-making behind animal euthanasia, I know that these decisions are not taken lightly. But they also differ from case to case, based on different ethical perspectives on the moral worth of animals.
Why do we disagree?
Public disagreements about when animals should be killed reflect the diversity of views in society about how we should treat animals. We tend to treat wild animals differently from domestic animals, and we tend to view farm animals differently from pets.
These differences are a reflection of the different bonds formed between humans and animals in different contexts. But they also reflect the three different perspectives humans take on the moral worth of animals.
Firstly, animals can be recognized by their instrumental value. In this perspective, animals are valued as a source of companionship, animal products, or knowledge gained through research. Seen as mere tools, this perspective makes it possible to use, keep and kill animals for the benefit of humans.
Second, animals can be valued for their own sake, for example because of their ability to feel. In this perspective, the moral worth of an animal does not depend on its usefulness to humans, but is intrinsic to the animal.
This means that people must respect the animal, including their well-being and integrity. The use, keeping or killing of animals is therefore not allowed in this perspective, unless there are strong arguments to justify these actions.
Finally, animals can be recognized as morally equal to humans. That gives animals the rights that humans have. This perspective means that animals should not be used, kept or killed for human interests under any circumstances.
While there is a trend in many societies to recognize the moral worth of animals in law, there is still no consensus on exactly how we should treat animals. This explains some of the current discussion.
Ending a life
Whether and when animals themselves have an interest in continuing or ending their lives is the subject of an ongoing debate.
Animals are increasingly recognized as ‘conscious beings’. Many are believed to have the ability to evaluate the actions of others, remember some of their own actions and their consequences, assess risks, have feelings, and have a degree of awareness.
Despite this premise, there remain challenges in deciding when to end an animal’s life. Since humans cannot communicate with animals in most cases, we must rely on veterinary medicine, animal behavior and animal welfare science to determine whether it is in an animal’s best interest to end or continue its life.
It is therefore very important that species-specific experts are involved in decisions about ending an animal’s life. They are best placed to judge the animal’s best interests based on its quality of life and the suffering it may experience.
Nevertheless, the attitude towards euthanasia in animals is fluid. Freya and the beluga whale show that when animals cross different contexts, in this case from the wild to human urban areas, beliefs about how they should be treated can change dramatically.
Human interests often come into play when ending an animal’s life. These interests can be diverse, including emotional, financial and social considerations. They can influence the final decision to end the animal’s life, or the amount of time and money we may want to spend on possible alternatives.
When the interests of humans and the presumed interests of an animal are identified, the interests at stake are weighed up to arrive at a final decision. In many cases the interests are conflicting. Decisions are further complicated when the public is factored in, as they are likely to endorse different perspectives on the moral worth of animals.
In these cases, there are no easy answers. What we have learned from the recent cases is that ad hoc decision-making adds even more complexity, leaves little room for reflection and leaves the general public confused and in some cases outraged.
More similar cases will follow in the future. An open discussion about different end-of-life strategies for animals and the different interests of those involved could help reduce that confusion and outrage in the future.
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