Animal Studies Bibliography

Norment, Christopher. 2010. Killing Things. Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment (2010) volume 17 (1): 133-148.

By: Monica List

"Killing Things" is a brief yet powerful autoethnography by Christopher Norment, a specialist in the breeding and ecology of migratory birds . In this article, Norment focuses on a specific part of his work as a scientist, the killing and collection of live specimens. The collection of these avian specimens, and especially the Harris Sparrow, which he describes as his main interest, makes Norment experience a mix of paradoxical feelings. While he often mentions the satisfaction that he feels when finding and successfully shooting a desired individual, he has difficulties dealing with the conceptualization and internalization of the act of killing. In this short essay, he seems to try to convince himself, more than his reader, that there is no acceptable way to justify the taking of these lives, and that the words that we use to describe these actions mask what we are truly doing when we kill animals for the sole purpose of advancing science.

His first task in the paper is to give the reader a notion of what it is like to be a Harris's Sparrow- and what is like to be the scientist who brings the life of that sparrow to an end. This first part of the narrative describes in detail what the past couple of years of this particular Harris's Sparrow may have been like, and then, the moments that lead to the encounter between bird and rifle-bearing scientist. He then takes us back to his days as a doctoral student, emphasizing the importance of the process of collecting and preserving “specimens”, not only in his own academic experience, but more broadly as a central component of the field in general. He illustrates his narrative with technical details of how these animals are preserved and stored, as well as stories of famous scholars/collectors whose collections amassed thousands, and often tens of thousands of birds, mammals, and other animals.

The value of killing and collecting specimens as a scientific endeavor is Norment's first reason to explain this practice. Norment makes the point that the value of these vast collections does not only relate to their size and variety, but also to the perceived courage and scientific spirit they embody. The expeditions that led to the collections of these animals more often than not took the scientists to inhospitable regions, where their life was constantly at stake. He uses this narrative as a tool to somehow explain, both to the reader and himself, why famous collectors such as Sutton may have expressed utter joy at the finding and shooting of a particular animal. Even thought Norment claims that after the 1960s the practice of collecting specimens became less central to the field of ornithology research, he claims that to this day it is still part of certain kinds of research. For example, he claims that he would be unable to reliably study the diet of Harris's Sparrows if he did not kill and collect these birds.

His second reason or argument to justify the killing of scientific specimens is a utilitarian argument. He believes that the collection of these specimens has a negligible effect on bird populations in general (excluding endangered populations), especially considering the number of birds that are lost due to “natural” causes and other human actions, such as urban sprawl. Again, he emphasizes that the information generated by the practice of scientific collecting could not be obtained in other ways. His support for this argument is, however, weak, for he claims that even though valuable information is obtained, it is not clear to what extent this information is used for conservation purposes, i.e., for the greater good of the majority.

He then moves on from the justification of killing to what he believes is a deeper concern for him: the actual terms and language used to describe these acts. Part of the process of attempting to divest science of all subjective values is to neutralize the language used to describe science. This, Norment claims, may also shield the scientist from connecting to the actual act of killing, and from being haunted by it thereafter. Norment goes through the collection of terms used to describe these actions: collect, euthanize, take, and sacrifice. He is not satisfied with the use of any of these words, as none of them seem to accurately describe the way he feels about the act of shooting these birds for the good of science.

He examines each word in turn. “Taking” adequately reflects our desire to possess these creatures, but Norment has problems with the use of “force”, “skill”, and “artifice” as part of this definition. “Euthanasia” also presents its problems; its Greek roots mean “easy death” , and he questions whether these deaths are actually easy (he remembers at least one instance in which death could not be described this way). “Sacrifice” is another interesting term, especially in the abbreviated form used by some scientists: “sac”. Norment's biggest problem with this word is that it implies giving something up for something of greater value, and he is not convinced that this is the case. After failing to find the words to accurately describe what he feels when he kills these birds, Norment finally resorts to the most basic and gut-felt terms, including “killing”, which he believes portrays, in at least some way, the responsibility, sadness, and anger that he feels when taking the lives of these animals.



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