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Wolves as "killing machines." Analysis of a lame metaphor.

Essay by Ralph Maughan


The story about the wolves that killed the two llamas generated much comment, not because the story was about the first llamas to be killed by wolves, but in the differing responses of the llama owner versus the nearby rancher.

Bill Moran, the llama owner was reported (in the Libby newspaper) to have said  “I can’t blame the wolves. They were out in the woods, and the llamas were there too. So I have only myself to blame." Regarding possible reimbursement of loss from Defenders of Wildlife, the llama owner reportedly said, "It’s not (Defenders’) fault, it’s my fault." "I choose to live here, and while I live here the natural world ought to be able to run its course." He also said he'd be thrilled to see his first wolf.

On the other hand, the nearby rancher who suffered no harm was quoted as saying "Actually there’s no good time or place for the species." Jim Schneider, the McGinnis Meadows rancher who runs about 60 head of cattle told the Libby Western, “Our grandfathers years ago got rid of those wolves for a reason. Schneider said. “They’re just a killing machine. That’s all they are.” He’s rankled that the endangered designation for wolves legally bars people from harming them while they kill livestock [sic]. “Give me an answer, what do we got to do to get them wolves out of there?”

It's obvious that people see the same events in radically different ways. 

The "killing machine" metaphor-

The rancher used the metaphor "they're just a killing machine." Previous news reports show  many anti-wolf people use this metaphor. The immediate explanation for this is they read the same publications, talk among themselves, and form a community of opinion. However, the use of the "killing machine" metaphor itself is interesting.

A metaphor is a way of saying that one thing has the essential characteristics of another thing. . . "we are waging a war on drugs," "or drug use is a spreading epidemic." The choice of a metaphor makes a big difference in how we respond. A "war" on drugs implies a no-holds-barred attack ("no-holds-barred" is another metaphor). Niceties like civil liberties and protection of the innocent are not observed in a war. On the other hand, a drug "epidemic" is a medical metaphor and implies containment, quarantine, and treatment of those who have become infected. Drug epidemics make people victims, not the enemy. 

Wolves as machines-

What about the metaphor "they're [wolves] just a killing machine"? First of all the metaphor is not organic, it is mechanical -- "a machine." Machines perform repetitive tasks for humans, and have no use beyond that. With "wolf machines" the task is killing. All wolf machines do is kill things, and not to just eat their prey. Wolves repetitively kill until there is nothing left alive for them to kill. Machines are designed to be efficient, so the metaphor also implies the wolves not only kill and kill, but do so efficiently.

Machines have no will of their own, no feelings, and have no moral status. We dispose of machines when they have no further use to us. Because we did not create the machine wolf, and because all it does is kill and kill, then we don't have ethical qualms about eliminating it. In fact, the metaphor implies the wolf must be an alien machine (humans didn't build it). Certainly then, it is our duty to eliminate it.

The llama owner, on other hand, saw the series of events as natural. Calling something "natural" is also a powerful metaphor and the complete opposite of the artificiality of "machine." Calling something "natural" implies the behavior is to be expected, and so it should have been anticipated. The outcome -- death of the prey -- is normal.

Some metaphors distort rather than clarify-

Not all metaphors are equally valid. We say that electricity flows in a current. This is a useful metaphorical description that compares some properties of electricity to that of fluids. If one said "electricity rock solid," that would be a useless and a wrong metaphor.

What about the validity of the metaphor "wolves are just a killing machine?"

Is killing the only thing wolves do? As any observers of wolves know, wolves spend little of their time killing. Do wolves kill efficiently like a machine? Most chases of prey end in failure. The chance of success increases when more than one wolf hunts, so giving benefit of the doubt to the metaphor, one killing machine is often not enough.

Are wolves artificial creations? No one would really argue that. In fact, the only machines we know about were created by humans. Humans can also be part of a processes that can be described in mechanical terms. Organizational specialists will even often describe various coordinated human activities as "efficient" or not.

Humans as cogs in a killing machine?

If we think of the process of raising cattle, taking them to market, then to slaughter, dismemberment, and distribution to human consumers; the entire process seems mechanical. If a killing machine metaphor is appropriate, it could be argued it is the rancher and other humans involved in the process which are cogs in a killing machine, not the wolf. Wolves would factor in as a minor outside disturbance to the machine-like process of livestock production, killing, and human consumption.

Of course, the production of beef for consumption is the purpose of the process, not their killing itself, so ranchers as a "cog" in the "killing machine" is not really an appropriate metaphor either. 

The essential point is that ranchers raise cattle for humans (and their carnivorous pets) to eat and to render into other products. Many ranchers tend to forget that humans consume far more flesh than all the wolves, bears, and nondomestic cats in the world. They tend to forget that the fate of their cattle is the slaughterhouse followed by a consumption more thorough and efficient than that of any wolf. 

The matter of prejudice-

Throughout history, some human beings have been devalued and denied moral status by use of metaphor. People of color were described to have animal-like characteristics. Women were believed to be "driven" by emotion rather than "governed" by reason. Native peoples were called "savages," which in turn justified savage behavior against them. The Christian Identity religion even regards Jews as the "spawn of Satan." This is doubly negative -- Satan spawning like fish and frogs, not mammals. 

Prejudice makes it so those who are its object can do nothing to prove their worth. A classic measure of anti-Semitism includes two statements that are contradictory -- "The trouble with Jews is that they are clannish and only take care of their own group." On the other hand "Jews are always pushing into places where they are not wanted." Anti-Semites agree with both statements. 

Similarly, many news stories have reported ranchers and others condemning wolves for wasting their prey by leaving it half eaten. On the other hand, many other stories condemn wolves for their ravenous behavior (indeed they do consort with ravens.). For example, "You can't find my cow because the wolves were so ravenous they ate even the hide and the bones."

In conclusion, not only is the killing machine metaphor wrong, so is its moral. Use of dehumanizing metaphors has served to justify any kind of cruelty to humans. Likewise, so is the denial of an animal the status as a natural, feeling being.

Wolves kill because they have to eat meat. It's part of their nature, and that's no metaphor.

I want to thank Mark, Jackie, Salle, and David for helping me think this out.

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Copyright © 2001 Ralph Maughan
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