To truly end animal suffering, the most ethical choice is to kill wild predators (especially Cecil the lion)

Mercy killing?
Mercy killing?
Image: AP Photo/Kathy Willens-File
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The story of Walter Palmer, a Minnesotan dentist who hunted and killed Cecil the lion, rocked the internet—and indeed the world—this summer. PETA president Ingrid Newkirk has even called for Cecil’s killer—who went back to work this week despite a crowd of lingering protesters—to be hanged.

Most animal activists seem to agree that even if we commit more egregious harms to animals domestically, the killing of Cecil remains a barbaric act, and that his death is nothing less than a tragedy. But what if the killing of Cecil the lion was actually an act of mercy that would save countless other lives?

As long-term vegetarians who abstain from meat for ethical reasons, we are both supporters of animal activists who seek to improve the lives of animals. So you might expect us to agree with activists like Ingrid Newkirk that the killing of Cecil is a terrible thing. But we don’t. In fact, we think it may be the case that animal rights activists should support the killing of predatory animals like Cecil.

Animal activists have different opinions about how we ought to respond to animal suffering. For example, some activists believe that we should aim to increase the welfare of animals within the meat and dairy industries by improving the conditions in which they live and eventually die (welfarism), while others believe that we should aim to abolish these industries altogether (abolitionism). But most animal activists agree that we should try to protect animals from unnecessary suffering and death, and that it is wrong for humans to cause such unnecessary suffering.

The animal welfare conversation has generally centered on human-caused animal suffering and human-caused animal deaths. But we’re not the only ones who hunt and kill. It is true (and terrible) that an estimated 20 billion chickens were born into captivity in 2013 alone, many of whom live in terrible conditions in factory farms. But there are estimated 60 billion land birds and over 100 billion land mammals living in the wild. Who is working to alleviate their suffering? As the philosopher Jeff McMahan writes: “Wherever there is animal life, predators are stalking, chasing, capturing, killing, and devouring their prey. Agonized suffering and violent death are ubiquitous and continuous.”

If we believe that we should protect animals from unnecessary suffering and death, then it seems that we should be focusing much more on reducing the non-human causes of animal suffering and death that occur almost continuously in the wild. Which brings us back to Cecil. Just as we may be able to alleviate the suffering caused to wild animals by disease or natural disasters, we might also be able to do something about predation and the often-brutal competition that permeates the natural food chain.

If animal activists care about wild animals as much as they care about domestic animals, then these are two main causes of suffering and death among wild animals that they should try to prevent.

Predatory animals cause many animal deaths in the wild. Lions hunt their own prey and scavenge kills that have died naturally or that have been killed by other predators like hyenas. Although male lions will leave the bulk of the hunting to females, they create greater demand for prey kills from both female lions and the predators from whom they scavenge. A male lion requires about 15 pounds of meat per day and the kill rate for lions is estimated at anywhere between 10 and 47 kills per year. These kills can be difficult to watch, but they are an inevitable outcome of allowing predators to continue to live.

By killing predators, we can save the lives of the many prey animals like wildebeests, zebras, and buffalos in the local area that would otherwise be killed in order to keep the animals at the top of the food chain alive. And there’s no reason for considering the lives of predators like lions to be more important than the lives of their prey.

We understand that this will be a controversial claim. Animal activists might respond that understanding the plight of prey animals doesn’t justify the killing of their predators. Consider an analogous case involving humans. Suppose we know that John is a serial killer who is intent on murdering several people over the next year. When John’s neighbor discovers this, she shoots John, thereby saving the lives of all of his future victims. Her action is analogous to those of Cecil’s killer, but we would still not applaud her action. After all, she should have turned John into the police rather than killing him.

The same is true in Cecil’s case: even if we care about preventing predators from killing other animals, it is surely better to do this humanely than to kill them. For example, we could take the predators out of their natural environment and give them good lives that don’t involve hunting prey. But even if we accept that killing Cecil isn’t the best thing that Walter Palmer could have done, the question remains: was it a good thing to do? Was it better to kill Cecil than to have left things as they were? We would presumably think that it would be better for John’s neighbor to shoot John in order to save the lives of his victims than to do nothing and let his victims die, even if we think it would be even better for her to call the police and report John. Similarly, it may be better for us to kill predators like Cecil than to do nothing, even if it would be even better if we could humanely remove predators from the environment without killing them.

Another key objection to the argument we have given here, however, is that prey animals like the wildebeest may themselves have terrible lives—lives that are worse than death—even if we take predators out of the equation. Besides having predators to fear, prey animals are also subject to disease, parasites, and starvation. And if prey animals have lives that are not worth living, then we may be doing them a favor by leaving predators in the environment that can end their life sooner, rather than waiting for them to die from natural causes.

We accept that prey animals may indeed have miserable lives, and that if they do then Cecil’s death is actually worse than people have previously thought, as his death condemns his potential prey to potentially many more years of suffering than had he killed them. But the claim that prey animals have miserable lives leads animal activists to surprising conclusions of a different sort. If wild animals don’t have lives worth living then we should try to either improve their lives to the point that they are worth living, or we should prevent such animals from existing in the future. In other words, we should focus on reducing disease, parasites and starvation among wild animals, or on reducing their population size.

So the options that seem to be on the table for the animal activist are: reduce the number of predators to improve the lives of prey, or increase the number of predators to put prey out of their misery. Both possibilities involve large-scale intervention in ecosystems. Such large-scale interventions could have unforeseen negative consequences, since ecosystems are complex things. For example, the introduction of rabbits and cane toads in Australia, where both species had no natural predators, led to both species becoming major pests that have had major impacts on Australian ecology. Since the welfare and survival of animals (including ourselves) is dependent on these ecosystems, we should be very careful before undertaking any sort of large-scale intervention that may have unforeseen consequences.

Just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it can’t be done. In this case, interventions could be justified following a rigorous risk analysis. But these issues can be set aside for the purposes of this thought experiment. The cases that we are considering don’t involve a large-scale intervention. They involve the killing of individual predators. Individual hunts are unlikely to have knock-on effects on the ecosystem of the region. Nor are they likely to lead to increased death of prey through starvation, since it is highly unlikely that killing individual predators will lead to prey overpopulation.

A final objection to the view outlined here is that we should not prevent animals from engaging in hunting behavior because such behavior is “natural.” And we can’t blame animals for behaving in accordance with their nature. (Of course, hunting behavior in humans is also natural, but people have not offered this as a defense of Cecil’s killer.) But a behavior may be natural—and may even be required for survival—without thereby being good. If a species emerged that had to viciously torture humans in order to survive, we would not conclude that their torture of humans is morally OK. It’s also important to emphasize that we are not making any moral judgments about predator behavior. Predators don’t have the kind of cognitive awareness that is probably required for moral responsibility. But we don’t need to think that actions have been undertaken by morally responsible agents in order to think that we are required to intervene and prevent them from happening. An infant with a handgun is not morally responsible if she accidentally shoots someone, but we are morally required to take the handgun from the infant as soon as we see that she has it. Similarly, we may think that predators are not morally responsible for their actions, but that we are morally required to prevent them from harming local prey populations.

Given the facts, therefore, it seems hard to see why animal welfare advocates would be in such uproar over the killing of Cecil. Walter Palmer killed one animal, but in doing so he saved dozens of others.