What Does ‘Humane’ Actually Mean?
“…Euthanizing the beavers was determined to be the most humane way to remove them from the slough.”
The phrase above may seem innocuous to the public, but to those familiar with how beavers are commonly killed, the words ‘euthanize’ and ‘humane’ evoke emotions that range from suspicion to indignation. The sentence is from a news article about a provincial public energy corporation’s decision to lethally trap beavers upstream from a major hydroelectric dam being constructed in British Columbia.
It’s one example among countless others where the words ‘humane’ and ‘euthanasia’ are used to describe cruel treatment towards animals. In the field of animal protection, we see these words often. They’re seen throughout agricultural guidelines, corporate marketing, government statements, and news articles. They’re used by animal protection advocates, veterinarians, and the public. But the interpretation of what these words mean — especially the word ‘humane’ — varies considerably by who uses them, and what they’re describing.
The Fur-Bearers, a Canadian wildlife protection charity, commissioned a survey in February 2023 to explore and demystify these words. The online survey of 1,000 Canadian adults was conducted by polling company Research Co. and weighted according to Census figures. We sought to understand how Canadians interpret the word ‘humane,’ who they trust in defining the word, their trust or mistrust of humane labeling programs, their views towards animal sentience, what humane treatment means to them, and if there is an alignment or a disconnect over several practices commonly referred to as ‘humane’ or ‘euthanasia.’ In this article, I’ll present several key insights from the survey and what it means for animal protection, and will demonstrate how usage of the word ‘humane’ is both misleading and disconnected from public perception.
Animal Sentience And The Importance Of Looking Beyond the Physical Realm
Among the most significant results is that 87% of Canadians believe that animals are sentient (7% disagree; 6% not sure), revealing that public belief is strongly aligned with the science on animal sentience. This belief leads to an ethical obligation to treat animals humanely, respecting their capacities that extend beyond the physical realm. Animals that are intensively farmed may receive the basic necessities to stay alive such as food, water, and shelter; but they are often deprived of other opportunities that are necessary for their health and well-being.
For example, American mink (Neogale vison) are semi-aquatic animals with home territories in the wild that can span several kilometers. Their natural behaviors include swimming, hunting, running, hiding, and socializing. But on Canadian fur farms, mink are kept in 8” by 15” wire cages. As a result of their extreme confinement, mink are unable to engage in their natural behaviors and often develop repetitive, stereotypic behaviors and other abnormalities such as cannibalism and self-mutilation. While their basic survival needs may be met on fur farms, their psychological and behavioral needs aren’t.
The survey data suggests that these conditions are unacceptable to Canadians. Ninety-four percent of Canadians say that it’s important to them that animals have their basic physical and psychological needs met, and 85% of Canadians believe that the humane treatment of animals involves both physical and mental/psychological treatment.
Current practices towards animals across many sectors do not consider psychological needs or the mental well-being of animals as factors under ‘humane treatment’. Our understandings of animal sentience have evolved considerably in recent decades, yet many industry practices, guidelines, and laws governing animal welfare have not. There is a disconnect between what is considered or labeled ‘humane’ by animal-use industries and governments, and what the public believes is humane. Returning to the fur farming example, the fur industry in Canada calls fur farming humane, but the survey found 65% of Canadians disagree with this characterization.
Defining Humane And Public Trust
Our survey sought to understand two questions related to trust: 1) who do Canadians trust most in defining the word ‘humane,’ and 2) to what extent do Canadians trust or distrust humane certification programs? The word ‘humane’ is rarely defined by those who use it, nor is it defined in many statutes and regulations that govern treatment towards – or the use of – animals. Absent of any legal definitions that provide specific parameters of what humane treatment entails, the word is often misused by those employing it. Our survey results shed light on who Canadians trust – and distrust – in defining the word, seen in the chart below.
The overall picture from this data is that the public places more trust in groups that have caring relationships to animals and work to improve their welfare, rather than groups with exploitative relationships to animals and benefit financially from their use.
These results are echoed in questions related to humane certification programs. We found that 67% of Canadians trust certification programs from animal protection organizations. The level of trust falls to 51% for industry association certification programs. The survey also found that 64% of Canadians would likely change their purchasing behaviour if a product they intended to buy was labelled humane.
Where animals are used for food, clothing, research, entertainment, or sport, they often endure prolonged suffering throughout their lives in captivity, and experience short but intense pain at the end of their lives when they are killed. Many of these conditions and practices are described as being humane or in the case of killing: ‘euthanasia.’ For example, industry guidelines for fur production in Canada use the term ‘euthanasia’ to describe on-farm killing methods such as gas chambers for farmed mink and anal electrocution for farmed foxes. Our survey sought to understand where Canadians stand on these terms in the context of various practices.
The following shows the percentage of Canadians who disagree with the practice being characterized as humane:
- Killing traps for wildlife (67%)
- Restraining traps for wildlife (67%)
- Drowning animals (79%)
- The use of gestation crates (55%)
- The use of battery cages (63%)
- Keeping wild animals in zoos / captivity (57%)
Euthanasia is normally understood as being a “good death” as an act of mercy. The word is frequently used to describe a variety of methods used to kill animals across many sectors, from wildlife management, to animals used in research, and beyond. Again, Canadians reject the use of this word to describe many of these killing practices. The following shows the percentage of Canadians who disagree with killing practices being referred to as euthanasia:
- Mechanical trap (71%)
- Gas chamber (68%)
- Gunshot to the head (60%)
- Captive bolt gun (63%)
- Blunt force trauma (75%)
- Decapitation (71%)
- Maceration (61%)
- Cervical dislocation (72%)
- Anal electrocution (67%)
The practice with the least amount of disagreement was anesthetic overdose, with 48% of Canadians agreeing that this is considered euthanasia (40% disagree, 12% unsure).
Public sentiment towards these practices reveals that there is a significant disconnect between what people are told, and what they believe to be humane or considered euthanasia. It also suggests there is a need to challenge existing narratives and language when these words are used to describe cruel practices towards animals. Not only are they misleading, but they are out of touch with the public’s expectations. To highlight this point with a specific example, we’ll look at the trapping scenario raised in the introduction.
Is Trapping Humane?
There are only two international treaties that speak directly to the welfare of wild animals, one of which is The Agreement on International Humane Trapping Standards (AIHTS) (the other being CITES — The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). The AIHTS is a legally-binding treaty signed by Canada, Russia, and the European Union in 1997 that creates standards for the trapping of fur-bearing animals, and certifies traps that meet ‘humane’ standards. If a trapping method meets a certain threshold requirement (or put another way, meets a scorecard of allowable injuries), it is deemed humane. While it may seem like a step forward for animals to have a legally-binding international agreement in place for animal welfare (the agreement even has the word ‘humane’ in it!), a closer look at the AIHTS reveals what is considered ‘humane.’
Under the AIHTS, a trapping method is considered humane if it works 80% of the time in testing. A 20% failure rate, or 1 in 5 animals, is an acceptable threshold under this agreement. For restraining traps, failure to meet the threshold is measured by poor welfare indicators such as self-mutilation, maiming, and death. For killing traps, failure to meet the threshold means the animal not becoming “unconscious and insensible” within a predefined time limit. Communication obtained by The Fur-Bearers from the aforementioned public energy company illustrates how the AIHTS ‘humane standards’ result in animal suffering, despite their name. Their email reads:
The contractor is using conibear traps that are designed to kill the target animal quickly. They are considered one of the most humane traps available. Scientific testing has compared time-to-death upon capture to generally acceptable standards and generally determines these traps to be humane.
Conibear traps are designed to kill instantly and are commonly placed underwater to trap beavers. When these traps clamp down on a beaver’s neck, it is acceptable under the AIHTS for “unconsciousness and insensibility” to take up to 300 seconds (5 minutes). This is an excruciating death when it is prolonged for several minutes, but the disturbing scenario is considered successful under the AIHTS. Failure happens when death doesn’t occur within these 300 seconds. In these cases, beavers are trapped underwater in killing devices that fail to instantaneously kill them, leaving them struggling in severe pain until their eventual death by asphyxiation (i.e. drowning), which can take up to 15 minutes. These traps cause tremendous pain and suffering.
Because Canada is party to this agreement and government agencies certify these traps for their use across the country, the word ‘humane’ is frequently employed by trappers, fur industry associations, public agencies, governments, and retailers to describe methods used to kill wild fur-bearing animals. But as our survey shows: the public isn’t buying it.
The survey results overwhelmingly demonstrate that Canadians disagree with the characterization that killing and restraining traps are humane (67% disagree), that drowning is humane (79% disagree), and that mechanical traps are a form of euthanasia (71% disagree). The narrative that trapping is humane flows from this decades-old agreement that does little to protect animals, and exists to serve commercial fur industry interests, allowing Canadian fur products to be sold on the European market under the guise that animals were killed in Canada using ‘humane’ trapping methods.
Canadians want to make humane, ethical choices, and our survey shows a distinct gap between citizen expectations and what is offered by industry, corporations, and governments when it comes to animal welfare. Misleading language such as ‘humane’ and ‘euthanasia’ is commonly used to describe practices towards animals that ordinary people would consider abhorrent and cruel. The word ‘humane’ is often used in absolute terms in marketing and advertising, suggesting that 100% of the time, animals are treated humanely. In reality, the purported ‘humane treatment’ of animals will never meet standards of perfection, nor do standards even strive to meet that goal (as the embedded 20% failure rate in the AIHTS demonstrates). In essence, the term ‘humane’ becomes false advertising, humanewashing deployed to mislead or deceive the public into believing that animals are treated well.
There is a clear rejection of prevailing humane narratives when it comes to the treatment of animals. Scrutinizing practices surrounding animal use and questioning the application of terms like ‘humane’ and ‘euthanasia’ are educational opportunities for animal protection organizations, advocates, and the public to challenge existing narratives and advocate for change.
To advance animal welfare and ensure that current practices towards animals are aligned with societal attitudes, there is a need to critically evaluate current practices across all sectors and eliminate those practices that are disconnected from the values of today. The results from this survey provide a starting point for a larger discussion and a move towards a truly humane world.
Results are based on an online study conducted by Research Co. from February 24 to February 26, 2023, among 1,000 adults in Canada. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian census figures for age, gender and region in Canada. The margin of error—which measures sample variability—is +/- 3.1 percentage points, nineteen times out of twenty.