As the world human population continues grow in number and mobility, and the impacts of climate change take effect, the opportunities for problematic relationships with non-human animals multiply. There are escalating threats to health from wild vectors of zoonotic disease, and so called ‘invasive’ species have been identified as a significant direct driver of an unprecedented period of global biodiversity loss. This brings a sense of genuine urgency to control problematic wild populations; in the UK alone, it is estimated that 38 million wild mammals and birds are killed as pests. However, the impact of these animals is not always objectively appraised. Control interventions are often ineffective, may be counterproductive and can cause severe suffering. Decisions about when, where and how to control animal populations can be affected by attitudes and philosophical perspectives, influenced by how language is used.
A systematic review of wildlife population control studies was carried out to determine whether negative linguistic framing of animals was associated with poor welfare outcomes. Framework analysis of titles, abstracts and keywords was used, and assessments made of the welfare impacts of control methods. This analysis revealed language that framed target populations in terms of War, Threat, Place, Victim, Value, Sentience and Naturalness with a range of associated themes. There was a relationship between negative framing and methods with the most adverse welfare outcomes, but the effect was not consistent. It was clear that there are cultural conventions within the science that were reinforced or challenged depending on many factors including the status of the species and the context of the intervention. More work to explore and challenge cultural conventions in describing targeted animals, and robust reporting of the welfare impacts of control methods are needed to tackle this, often disregarded, animal welfare emergency.