This ought to be an easy question to answer, right? Everyone knows "the answer."
But only a few animal workers and veterinarians have gathered data--and, of course, it depends on how the animal dies. To make the question simple enough to approach (for mortal souls), let's only examine the "quick death" that's delivered by a skillful hunter or trapper using lethal methods.
This blog entry is not meant to be an authoritative answer to the question, just a questioning of people's answers from the various extremes.
For three of the extreme viewpoints, let's go to a statement by Dr. David Mech (world-renowned expert, etc., etc., on the topic of wolf management) in a 1/26/2012 informational hearing at the MN House of Representatives (Mech 2012). At the time of this hearing, the Gray Wolf in the Western Great Lakes region had just been "delisted": removed from the protection of the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Dr. Mech summed up the emotional/political divide of the people of Minnesota as follows: "We've got a lot of people who think that no wolf should ever be allowed to live, and a lot of people who think that no wolf should ever be killed, and so the DNR is in a position of having to meet not only the expectations of those groups, but also the general public."
In his simplification of the issue, Dr. Mech left out the context of what people believe; why they believe it; what plan, exactly, of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) he was condoning; and how that plan was intended to meet people's expectations. He went straight to his conclusion that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MN DNR) should be left in charge of how wolves are killed (since the nuts on both extremes couldn't be trusted with such weighty decisions, and the general public just wanted someone with a proper image to handle it for them).
Let's examine these three points of view: "right" and "left" as described by Dr. Mech, and "fish & game officials" as recommended by him. As for the rest, it's hard to know what to say; but let's also consider a third option of "full awareness."
On the one hand is the extreme "left," in which the prevalent belief is, for example, that "no wolf should ever be killed."
An example of this and the opposite viewpoint can be seen, very emotionally, in the "deer scene" from the movie "Powder" (Salva 1995). The scene can be found on YouTube by searching for those keywords (be careful how you arrange them, though, because a search for "Powder deer scene", might is likely to find a bunch of black-powder hunting videos, Daniel Boone-style). If you're an anti-hunting activist, though (or a hunting activist who's dismissed it as a fantasy), you already know the scene.
In this "deer scene," a fictional young man with supernatural empathic abilities conveys the powerful emotions of a dying deer to a fictional hunter who previously had no such feeling in his heart, and no such idea in his head. The emotions were scripted as the movie producers imagined them to be, or as they wanted to impress them on children, or as they wanted to embarrass their negative, emotionless models from childhood, or something. The actors played their parts and hit all their marks, but without the benefit of firearms-safety training, or medical or veterinary knowledge, or a balanced point of view. The actor who played the "hunter" blabbered something incoherent, but manly-sounding, before he was taken over by the power of the deer's dying emotion. The young men following him rushed to his aid, and carefully positioned the rifle for cinematic effect in the midst of their group--clearly pointing in the very wrong directions of first one, then another young man's head (which goes to show that no one involved knew the first thing about hunting).
For the *impressionable*, this scene is convincing; but for the *unimpressionable*, it's nonsense--and further evidence for Dr. Mech that these anti-hunting nuts must never be given a voice in wildlife management.
This video poses a problem for the cause of animal protection, and of course it does not constitute evidence of "how things really are." It's just a portrayal of the two opposite points of view.
On the other hand is the extreme "right," in which the prevalent belief is, for example, that "no wolf should be allowed to live."
Examples of this anti-fantasy attitude, this lack of emotion, this absolute certainty in the propriety of killing can be found on YouTube by searching for a phrase like "death in conibear trap." One of them can be found on the YouTube channel of user "5911ryan" with the title "Beaver getting caught in trap" (5911ryan, 2011). Fair warning: it's not what most on the "left" would be willing to watch.
The true-life video by user "5911ryan" clocks the death struggle of a beaver whose neck has been clamped in a body-gripping trap--no blood flowing to the brain or oxygen to the lungs. The narrator gauges the declining strength of the beaver's struggle (with a premature diagnosis that the movements are involuntary spasms). As the beaver dies, the narrator recites the elapsed time and describes the setting, the trap, the animal, and his own assessment of what the animal's poor prospects would surely have been in its undersized wetland. The trapper's assessment is that this quick death (2 minutes and 9 seconds until it stops moving) is a merciful alternative to what would have been the animal's slow demise in nature.
For the *unimpressionable* (those who don't sympathize with the feelings of the beaver in its death throes), this scene is as simple as the narration: a matter-of-fact, clinically-recorded description of "how things are." But for the *impressionable* (those with compassion for the tragic and unnatural loss of the beaver's life, and for its obvious panic in the last, cruel moments of its death) it's a view into the pathological workings of a human mind.
This video poses a problem for the cause of sportsmanship, and of course it does not constitute evidence of "how things really are." It's just a presentation by one of the two opposite points of view.
Fish & Game Officials
Somewhere in-between those two extremes of "left" and "right" are fish & game officials (for example, Dr. Mech and the MN DNR). They have a solution: just leave them in charge of how wild animals are killed, and they'll handle it from there.
They know "best," after all, how to express controversial subjects in neutral terms that won't get so many people riled up and thinking about the details, or the behavioral biology, or the painful emotions. They know "best" how to judge from their statistics of total kills vs. complaint calls about wounded deer, that the deer in the scene from the movie "Powder" would have most likely been overwhelmed by shock following the massive destruction of its cardio-vascular system and internal organs by the well-targeted, high-powered rifle bullet; and that the deer would probably have slipped quickly into unconsciousness and death with little or no suffering from human-like fear or other strong human-like emotions.
Above all, they know "better" than to get into the clinical details of an individual animal's death, necessary or unnecessary, in shock or in emotional panic. They know that it will be "far more prudent" for them to avoid all of those details, and instead to generalize about the success of the deer population as a whole, the legal take of the sustainable harvest of deer, and the outdoor-recreational opportunity that's provided to deer hunters by the hunt.
"Evidence," for fish & game officials, is any piece of information that can be cherry-picked and presented to make their case look convincing.
Now, here's a fourth perspective that few people ever consider: veterinarians study these things. Contrary to the popular "fish & game" euphemisms of drowning as "hypoxia," "anoxia," or "euthanasia," it turns out that drowning is not such a pleasant thing (Ludders et al. 1999). Same for the violent obstruction of blood flow and air supply by a lethal trap or snare. And, contrary to fears on the "left" of how much fear and suffering there "must be" in the death of an animal caused by a high-powered gunshot with massive hemorrhaging of the vital organs; well, probably there wasn't much time for that before the immediate onset of shock, stupor, and loss of consciousness (Butler 2010).
To summarize the four viewpoints above, some on the "left" believe they know exactly how passionate an animal's death is; some on the "right" believe they know that it's free from passion; those who have been put in charge of "fish & game" believe that it's "best" if people don't think too much about any of that; and a few, quiet veterinarians have stress-hormone readings to share with anyone who's willing to face the facts. The first three positions seem to account for the majority of concerned parties, and the fourth is largely ignored.
But if we were fully aware, what would we know about what's it like for an animal to die a quick death?
Obviously, it would depend on the animal and how it died. Although the awareness of such things can be unpleasant, it's also necessary in order to know how to resolve the social conflicts.
On the "left," the producers of the movie "Powder" don't seem to have any real information that could be put to practical use. On the "right," trappers like the one who made the "time to loss of consciousness" video don't see any problem that needs to be resolved. And, in order to keep the peace, the only thing the fish & game officials know how to do is to make everything look good (without resolving anything). No one calls on the veterinarians unless they really don't know what to do.
If we were fully aware of the life of another being, would that being's unnecessary death be a cause for sadness? Even if other lives in that population and the population itself were to succeed; even if it was "legal taking" of a "sustainable harvest;" even if the sentient mind of that being were relieved of its suffering by shock, followed by quick unconsciousness and death; even if it was a lone wolf with no family to mourn its loss?
If we were fully aware of that sadness, would our primary goal be to minimize that sadness (rather than the four options above)?
If we were fully aware of the social conflicts between the different viewpoints, would our secondary goals be to minimize our own over-dramatization ("left"), self-righteousness ("right"), non-questioning of authority ("fish & game") or authority's abolitionists ("left" *and* "right")? Would we seek to minimize the mutual condemnation in which these groups habitually spend most of their effort?
If we were fully aware (having reached "enlightenment," but still with both feet on the ground), would the proposed "solutions" of "left," "right," and "fish & game" hold out any kind of hope that these social conflicts would ever be resolved?
I don't know; I'm seeking that kind of enlightenment.
"5911ryan". 2011. Beaver Getting Caught in a Trap. “How-To” Videos about Trapping. Saskatchewan, Canada. http://youtu.be/YXawrM46EU8.
Butler, Amy. 2010. “Shock - Recognition, Pathophysiology and Treatment.” District of Columbia Academy of Veterinary Medicine. October 1. http://www.dcavm.org/10oct.html.
Ludders, John W., Robert H. Schmidt, F. Joshua Dein, and Patrice N. Klein. 1999. “Drowning Is Not Euthanasia.” Wildlife Society Bulletin 27 (3): 666–70.
Mech, L. David. 2012. Dr. David Mech, U.S. Geological Survey, Discusses Wolf Management in Minnesota. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Saint Paul, MN, USA. http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/mammals/wolves/mech_testimony.html.
Salva, Victor. 1995. Powder. Hollywood Pictures, Caravan Pictures, Buena Vista Pictures. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0114168/.
Figure 1: screenshot from the deer scene of the movie "Powder" (Salva 1995).