Adventures in Ethics and Science

In the comments of one of my snail eradication posts, Emily asks some important questions:

I’m curious about how exactly you reason the snail-killing out ethically alongside the vegetarianism. Does the fact that there’s simply no other workable way to deal with the pests mean the benefits of killing them outweigh the ethical problems? Does the fact that they’re molluscs make a big difference? Would you kill mice if they were pests in your house? If you wanted to eat snails, would you? Or maybe the not-wanting-to-kill-animals thing is a relatively small factor in your vegetarianism?

Killing the snails is not something I relish (and not just because of what a slimy job it is). Although they are molluscs, I’m inclined to think they experience something like pain while the salt is sucking all the water out of them. I suppose it’s also likely that they would experience pain while being eaten by a chicken, or while being cooked to be eaten by a human. Would drowning in beer be painless to snails? I don’t know. (I do know, however, that the beer method has been less effective for us than pick and destroy.)

Anyway, what I’m doing to the snails probably causes pain. If I knew of a painless (for them) way to destroy them, I’d probably use it. From the point of view of animal welfare, my snail eradication plan is suboptimal.

So what is the interest pulling against minimization of snail pain here?

The short answer is that the current snail population makes it next to impossible for us to successfully raise food crops in our yard. On its face, this looks like a practical consideration rather than an ethical situation. However, our gardening is motivated at least in part by other ethical issues.

Raising food in our back yard is not just a way to feed the family a variety of fresh and nutritious fruits and vegetables (and maybe someday grains). It is also an effort to reduce our toll on the environment by removing a significant proportion of the food we consume from the big agriculture (and even the big organic agriculture) system. The food we are growing has fewer petroleum inputs, since we aren’t applying petroleum-derived synthetic fertilizer, nor driving tractors or other motorized farming vehicles, nor putting what we grow on trucks to get to the store (and driving to the store to buy it). There is also less packaging generated, since we keep using the same bowls and baskets to carry our crops from the garden into the kitchen.

I suspect we’re making more efficient use of water in raising our food crops, too. In addition to our bucket system, we also plant crops close enough to each other that they provide “living mulch” that reduces evaporative loss.

And, I strongly suspect that fewer animals are killed in our garden than are killed in the fields that big ag (even big organic ag) uses to raise crops. Mechanized tilling routinely kills small mammals who may be living under the soil, and pesticides and herbicides kill identified pests while running the risk of killing wildlife (either directly or when they wash into streams and such).

Slug and snail infestation at the commercial growers? I’m willing to bet they’re killing those gastropods promptly.

It’s probably not the case that everyone with a back yard garden intends it as a means by which to unplug from the big agriculture/supermarket/fast food cycle. However, for us, it is; while we might not be able to unplug completely, we can drastically reduce our participation in the cycle. And this, in turn, is intended to have a positive environmental impact, and thus a positive effect on the prospects of the human community as far as not rendering the earth unlivable

But we can’t have that positive effect without getting a handle on the snail population in our garden.

At this point, you might wonder if we could keep the garden snail population down without killing the critters. I don’t see relocating them as much of an option. They’re endemic to this region, and seeing as how they were brought here from elsewhere (France, I’m told) and became an invasive species, I would not want to risk doing the same thing to another region.

If I were to buy all our produce at the store, rather than raising it myself in the snail killing fields, that would not necessarily reduce the number of critters that die to make it possible for the peas, the tomatoes, the potatoes, or the carrots to grow to maturity. It would just be the case that I wasn’t intimately involved in these killings (whether intended or accidents following upon mechanized tilling or pesticide use), an so would not be directly aware of them.

Plenty of people are happy just to get the food without knowing the details of its provenance. I’d rather shoulder the responsibility of doing my own dirty work here. The karmic costs of my food are not hidden out back in the fields behind the farm stand.

* * * * *
If snails were at all aesthetically appealing to me as a source of food, I’d be eating them instead of just killing them. They aren’t, so I don’t.

I have a fondness for rodents, so if we had an infestation of mice or rats, we’d be using the “live” traps. Grain moths, however, we swat.


  1. #1 becca
    May 12, 2009

    Would cooking the snails and bringing them to a soup kitchen make it more ethical?

  2. #2 Pinko Punko
    May 12, 2009


    That comment will very likely be taken as extremely patronizing to those who eat in soup kitchens.

  3. #3 6EQUJ5
    May 12, 2009

    Your family, the snails, and the slugs are all competing for the same food. Fair’s fair. The snails would starve you to death if you let them.

  4. #4 Rob W
    May 12, 2009

    Excellent & thorough response.

    Paying someone else to do the killing for you doesn’t wash away the ethical problem; it just moves the unpleasantness out of your field of vision.

    We make ethical choices all the time, sometimes in no-win situations (like your snail problem…), which involve the suffering and deaths of creatures at all different levels of suffering capability, *including* humans… but most people don’t even make the connection.

    It’s worth the thought — even to be aware of the decisions we’re making.

  5. #5 SimonG
    May 12, 2009

    Doubtless you’re familiar with a lot of control options already, but you might care to take a look on the RHS site, ( They list several moderately ethical means of controlling slugs and other pests.

    (Only moderately ethical: how can it be right to deprive these poor little creatures of the food they need?)

  6. #6 Jude
    May 12, 2009

    As long as they’re invasive exotics which don’t belong here anyway, there is no ethical conundrum (says this 39-years-as-a-vegetarian).

  7. #7 blf
    May 12, 2009

    If a hedgehog or bird eats (and hence kills) a snail it’s not a problem.

    If a human kills, and possibly eats, a snail, it might be a problem, albeit not a big one. (In all cases, I’m excluding the case of a rare or endangered snail, and also assuming the snail isn’t toxic.)

    Um, what’s the difference? And if there is a difference, what defines the dividing line (or more probably, fuzzy dividing zone)?

    The one distinction I can see—which is not the case here—is when the snail is deliberately breed/raised to be eaten. I myself don’t have a problem with that per se, but I do understand and acknowledge others might.

    Change the creature to a cow, and I do have a problem (but I still eat beef). The distinction here is not “primitive” snail vs. cow/mammal, but mostly that the resources consumed to raise a cow makes beef production extremely inefficient. Snails, as I understand it, are much more efficient at turning plants into eatible animal protein. The fuzzy dividing zone is “ecological effectiveness”: The more inefficient / environmentally damaging the raising the bigger the problem.

  8. #8 Janne
    May 12, 2009

    Partly in jest, but:

    You could “plant” hardy shrubs and weeds instead of vegetables, then keep a couple of goats to feed of it. The weeds and shrubs need much less water than your vegetables; the goats happily eat the plants and snails alike, and in the end you use both the goats’ milk and their meat produced from the plants (and the hair too, for a dense, warm wool if you take the husbandry really seriously).

    Which is unlike the current situation where the plants feed the snails, who are then killed and thrown away instead of being used.

  9. #9 Onkel Bob
    May 12, 2009

    Jude @6 has it right, They are an invasive species. The slugs and snails found in gardens of NoCal are not natives, they hitched a ride many years ago on fruit trees and grape vines brought out here. There’s a reason why they proliferate here, very few predators.

    As for eating them – way too much work. You must “clean” them by putting them in a bucket of grain. They gorge themselves and clear out any unpalatable substances in their gut. Then you must soak them in ethanol and afterward cook them. Don’t even consider snail sushi, it can be a death sentence due to parasites in their guts migrating to your bloodstream and nervous system.

    BTW- salt isn’t the best solution as you can salinate the hardpan that is not too deep underneath in many bay area soils. A large aluminum foil pan filled with snail bait (a.k.a. Budweiser) sunk into the middle of the plot works well. Next year put in raised beds with wood planking for sides. Place copper flashing along the sides and top and snails won’t get into them. The added benefit is you can raise a garden year round in this area with such a system.

  10. #10 Jim Thomerson
    May 12, 2009

    I don’t agree that relocating the snails and slugs would be difficult. Suppose you walked or bicicled them a half mile away from your garden. Nothing but good exercise for you. You mention live trapping small mammals. What will you do with them then? Will you drown them in water and compost them? Or will you carry them off a ways and release them?

  11. #11 Preston
    May 12, 2009

    @6 and 10–So its the creatures’ fault that they are not native? Doesn’t this line of reasoning justify treating animals in zoos and circuses terribly? Surely this is fallacious!

    But, on the post, yeah. I think you are generally right that given your options, you are doing what is ethically right by doing whats necessary to grow the food in your backyard.

  12. #12 Jude
    May 12, 2009

    The ethics of zoos are another issue, and I’m not overly fond of any exotic (non-native) species, but in this case, we’re talking *invasive* species–ones that take over the native habitat. No, it’s not the snail’s fault that it was imported to our land, but because it’s invasive, I have no ethical problem eradicating it. If you’re from the south, think “kudzu” or from Australia, think “rabbits” or from Colorado, like me, think “tamarisk” or “Russian olive” or the west, think “Russian thistle.” All quite unpleasant invasive species.

  13. #13 Who Cares
    May 13, 2009

    The conundrum is a bit the same that a devout Buddhist has with modern agriculture. The way grain and vegetables are produced results in animal deaths. But (and this is a big but) you don’t have to produce as much grain & other foods for a vegetarian as when you are trying to get a steak plus you don’t have to kill the cow. Which results in the next best thing if you can’t prevent having to kill, reduce the amount of killing needed.

  14. #14 Emily
    May 13, 2009

    Great and interesting answers. Thank you!

  15. #15 SimonG
    May 13, 2009

    Isn’t all life invasive, by its very nature? (The only exception would perhaps be humanity, which could potentially choose not to expand into a new environment.)

    Would one still feel justified in killing slugs and snails if they’d hitched a ride to America with some animal other than us? Eggs on some bit of flotsam or the like? Plants and animals have always spread from one place to another, and on arrival in a new home will make the best of it they can at the expense of the indigenous life.

    If it’s OK to kill slugs, why isn’t it OK to kill any other plant or animal that has arrived since the contenents split apart?

  16. #16 Kelly
    May 13, 2009

    Where do you take the mice once you’ve captured them? We have taken them to the grass “alley” way between our yard and the backyard neighbor’s yard. However, those mice just come back into the house. I *hate* finding mouse poo in my kitchen, it is just so unsanitary!

  17. #17 Wilson Heath
    May 13, 2009

    Kelly, the key with humane mouse removal is to do two prongs, of which you’re only doing the obvious part: removal. The second part is to not give the critters a way back in. This means looking for where they are crawling in through and putting an appropriate barrier in its place, from caulk to plastering over chicken wire. This goes for the entries on your side of the wall as well as those on the exterior of the building. Having done this, the critters never bothered to find their way back in after over a year.

  18. #18 Dave M
    May 13, 2009

    I have to agree with those who aren’t convinced of the relevance of invasive-ness. It is hard to imagine that there are many species that weren’t invasive at some point, whether it was due to migrations during changes in weather patterns, stowing away, or just spreading out.

    To make invasive-ness relevant, perhaps we would need an argument that considers the net effect on the environment due to the introduction of the species. While there is always competition for resources among organisms, I suppose some species could be more destructive, consuming resources well beyond what they need to flourish; this could leave little left for other species.

    Wait a second… I think I just described our species!

  19. #19 Comrade PhysioProf
    May 17, 2009

    I seriously doubt that an animal with a nervous system of the complexity of a snail has the capacity to subjectively experience what we refer to as “pain” or “suffering”. I seriously doubt that snails have any subjective experiences at all.

  20. #20 Jessica
    May 23, 2009

    “perhaps we would need an argument that considers the net effect on the environment due to the introduction of the species.”

    That’s essentially what ecologists are talking about when they use the term “invasive species.” It’s not that they’re xenophobic and hate zebra mussels or Japanese knotweed for being foreigners, it’s that those organisms have no natural predators in their new environment and thus tend to overpopulate and overconsume resources, destroying existing food webs. If a new species migrated here and didn’t disrupt the ecosystem, we probably wouldn’t bother referring to it as invasive.

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