Our conflicted relationship with animals

Why do we get so angry with animal abusers, but eat more animals than ever before? An expert provides some clues


Kerry Lauerman
September 5, 2010 10:01PM (UTC)

Our collective animal passion has never seemed greater. Studies show we spend as much on our pets in a recession than when not in one, animal welfare laws continue to strengthen, and acts of animal cruelty caught on film and uploaded to the Web create global furor and condemnation. Animals, their furry forebears would surely say, have never had it so good.

Or have they? In his fascinating new book, "Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat," Hal Herzog looks at the wild, tortured paradoxes in our relationship with the weaker, if sometimes more adorable, species. A professor of psychology at Western Carolina University, Herzog studies our complicated relationship with animals, from our devotion to our dogs, to our increasing devotion to that barbecued brisket.

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We spoke to Herzog Friday about his new book, asking him about the notorious "cat bin lady" and "puppy throwing girl," whether children who harm animals grow up to be serial killers, and whether we'll have to come to peace with the undeniable similarities between the animals we love, and those we love to eat.

Why is it so hard to think straight about animals?

I think it's the human-meat relationship. The fact is, very few people are vegetarians; even most vegetarians eat meat. There have been several studies, including a very large one by the Department of Agriculture, where they asked people one day: Describe your diet. And 5 percent said they were vegetarians. Well, then they called the same people back a couple of days later and asked them about what they ate in the last 24 hours. And over 60 percent of these vegetarians had eaten meat. And so, the fact is, the campaign for moralized meat has been a failure. We actually kill three times as many animals for their flesh as we did when Peter Singer wrote "Animal Liberation" [in 1975]. We eat probably 20 percent more meat than we did when he wrote that book. Even though people are more concerned about animals, it seems like that's been occurring. The question is, why?

And, by the way, I think that the argument against eating meat is very strong.

On many levels. Michael Pollan's mantra of "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants," along with the larger understanding that meat eating puts an incredible burden on the planet, has created a new energy around vegetarianism. But is it just the same people who have always kind of been concerned about this stuff?

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No, I think not necessarily. I think there are also cases of, for example, the passage of the chicken welfare proposition in California [Proposition 2]; that passed, while the gay marriage proposition on the same ballot was defeated. The chicken amendment -- it was chickens and pigs -- there was no party affiliation. Both liberals and conservatives voted for that. So I think in some ways we are more concerned about animal welfare than ever before. So it's actually a great paradox.

I think the fact is that we're natural meat-eaters. And a lot of my vegetarian friends don't like that. But it's our biology and our evolutionary heritage. It's tough to fight that. That doesn't mean you shouldn't fight it. But most people lose that balance. And two-thirds of vegetarians eventually resume eating meat.

What was it about the two giant viral videos of the past few weeks -- the London woman, Mary Bale, who tried to trash that cat; the Bosnian woman who threw puppies from a bridge -- that caused such a giant furor?

I think there are a couple of  things involved in that. One is that they both involved women. And this is a little bit of an anomaly, because if you look at animal cruelty trials and (data), I think it's that 90 to 95 percent are men behind them. So that's one reason why this went viral; it's the surprising idea of women being cruel in this way.

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The bigger thing is they're both pet species, though. I've been thinking about this. I just went back this morning, and I uncovered a piece in the New York Times from 1877. And it's actually fascinating. They had a stray dog population, so what they did is they rounded up 750 stray dogs. They took them to the East River, and they had a large metal cage -- it took them all day to do this -- they would put 50 dogs at a time, 48 dogs at a time in this metal, iron cage, and lower it into the East River with a crane.

Wow.

Until the animals drowned. And then they would pull them out and they sold the carcasses for their leather, for a dollar each. And then they'd put another 50 dogs in there. And they started doing this at 7:30 in the morning, and they did it well into the afternoon. And so drowning animals was actually an acceptable way of dealing with pet overpopulation in 1877. Now it seems horrifying. I watched that girl toss those puppies into the river, and it was just horrifying.

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And I think there's something else that's sort of an interesting difference in the two cases. And it has to do with something I really deal with in the book a lot, which is the whole tension between logic and emotion, and why we do things. And -- have you looked at both of the videos?

I've seen the cat video, but I had to halt the puppy video before the first puppy was tossed.

OK, here's what happens with the cat video: We have this middle-aged woman who works at a bank. She's walking by, she sees this cat. And we can actually see this on the video, what she does. She walks past him. She then looks at the cat, she looks back, and then she sort of sees that there's a trash can there and then it's like she's automatized, she's not thinking at all. She simply puts the cat in the trash and closes the thing and walks on down the road. Later, she said basically, I don't know why I did this. She says, I cannot explain why I did this, it was a split second of misjudgment. And even later she couldn't explain why. It's an interesting case of what the psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls "moral dumbfounding." She does this thing and doesn't know why she does it.

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The Bosnia case, on the other hand, is a little bit different because there's a premeditated quality to it. She took these puppies, these six puppies, to this river, and she heaves them in, and actually set up somebody to videotape it. But when she was later asked, she then came up with this post-hoc reasoning. And she's now made a video apology, and she sort of blames her grandmother ... my grandmother asked me to do it, they were only 4 days old, they were sick, they had parasites, and it was the humane way to kill them. I'm not buying the logic of that at all. But I'm saying what she did then was she constructed this logic, she tried to make sense of what she did.

I think that this idea really plays out in our interactions with animals. In moral decisions generally, there's tension. We do things, and we don't know why we do them, sometimes. We then come up with the reason why. It makes sense, even if it doesn't.

I thought about my cockfighting pals, you know, when I was hanging out [for the book] with these rooster fighters. These rooster fighters had a fairly intricate set of moral logical framework in which cockfighting not only becomes not bad, it becomes actually good for the moral model for your children, something to be desired.

What was their rationale?

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Well, the most common rationale is the same one that you hear from chicken eaters: It's natural. It's really funny, I was telling a woman one time about these cockfighters, and she was telling me how disgusting it was and somehow it came around to eating chicken. I said, "Whoa, you eat chicken, how do you feel about that?" and she said, "Well, that's different because that's natural." That's exactly what the rooster fighters told me.

Right, and you make the point in the book that the cockfighters take good care of them, as opposed to the chicken we eat, which usually live very short, very miserable lives.

Right. By the way, I don't want to be seen as defending cockfighting. I'm opposed to it. I've never really bought their justification. But the fact is, there is actually less harm done by rooster fighting than there is by eating chicken.

Your point about the two video culprits -- that part of the shock is that they were women -- is interesting.

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But by the way, one thing about women and animal cruelty: Women typically do not do things like those women do, but women actually are engaged in a different type of animal cruelty. And that's that women are more likely than men to be animal hoarders.

What would be worse if you were a dog? Being thrown into a river and drowned, or living a life of an animal in a hoarding situation, where you're slowly starving to death? So the cruelty of hoarding is in a way greater than the cruelty of these instances. And two-thirds of hoarders are women.

And yet the perversion there is that hoarders feel that they're actually saving the animals.

Totally. That's the perversion that I'd say comes from loving too much, and not being able to draw a moral line. If we would agree that women tend to be more nurturing than men, hoarding is sort of the extreme version of that. Which can be just as cruel as the sort of brutality that men perpetuate through hunting and rooster fighting and all of that stuff.

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I'm as fascinated by the response to those videos -- not just Michael Bay's bounty -- as I am shocked by the acts of cruelty.

One of the things I love about studying human-animal interaction is that they tell us a lot about human nature. Not in these specific ones, but generally, we see the best in human behavior and the worst in human behavior. In this case, it's the worst, and not only was the worst behavior in the treatment of the animals. I went on Facebook, and there was a site immediately constructed called Death to Mary Bale, and I looked at what people were saying about her and it was just unbelievable. And it wasn't just that they wanted to kill her, it was the way that they wanted to kill her. People got so riled up about this.

But I also think people become fearful when they see videos like this, because they believe people who are cruel to animals are truly dangerous. I know you have a portion of the book devoted to the issue of whether children who abuse animals become violent or don't.

This is a major controversy in my field, anthrozoology. There's two schools of thought. And people are sincere on both sides, and I respect both their arguments. And it's become a fairly acrimonious debate in some ways. And the standard thinking is the belief in this thing called "the link," and that is that there is a strong link -- it's often implied as a causal link -- between childhood animal abuse and growing up to be a sociopathic adult. And so, what link advocates say is that oftentimes when they give talks they'll say, Well, every serial killer abused animals when they were a kid; every school shooter abused animals. Well, I've looked at government reports, and that's simply untrue. And furthermore, and again this is not my research, this is other people's research, but if you actually look at the rate of abuse -- and it's really hard to get good statistics on this, because people in prison tend to be liars – a slew of studies have now shown that the rates of abuse by college students is about the same in terms of rate of abuse by prisoners.

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Now, granted, in some cases the prisoners, it's a viler type of abuse. So the question is, how predictive is this? What I do in the book is, I went around and asked my friends, "Hey, did you ever abuse an animal?" And what I found is what other researchers have found; that, yeah, a lot of people have a history of cruelty.

Margaret Mead once said, "The worst thing that can happen to a kid is to abuse an animal and to get away with it." Because that's going to give him license to be like that later. I don't think the link is as strong as some of the link proponents. I think we should be concerned with childhood cruelty, but not necessarily because these kids are going to turn into sociopaths. I found a striking statement in Darwin's autobiography where he says, "I beat a puppy when I was a child just for the power of it." Charles Darwin.

But then what do you think about Mead's proposition? That if they get away with it, it's somehow damaging?

The vast majority of kids get away with it, and most people are going to grow up to be fine human beings.

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This is related to something else, the larger romance around the notion that animals have a civilizing effect on people. There are, of course, all of these programs where animals are brought in to work with prisoners. But many people talk about how good it is for children to be around animals as they grow up.

Well, one of the reasons Katherine Grier, who wrote probably the best history of pets in America, said that pet keeping really took off among the middle class between the 1800s and early 1900s was because it was a movement to make children better people. That raising a dog or a cat in your family if you were a kid was actually a way to learn nurturing skills and responsibility and all this stuff. I think there's some truth to that. I think there's no doubt about bringing animals into prisons, that bringing animals into retirement homes increases morale and my guess is that for some people it's a real transformative experience.

But I have a section in the book where I talk about whether pets are good for people. And I think they've been sort of overrated as being good for people. Some studies have found they are, and some studies have shown that they're not particularly good for people; there's been kind of a mixed bag.

I can understand how it's been overrated, but how can it be a mixed bag? How could having a pet actually be bad?

I can give piles of examples of that. There's a number of people that are bitten by pets every year. There's a shocking number of people that trip over their pet and wind up in the hospital. There's the fact that pets are the biggest source of conflict between neighbors. There are a set of studies that show that pets are good for people. But there's another set of studies we can see, where they show that pet owners drink more. Pet owners are more likely to use pain-relieving medicine. Stuff like that.

I don't take these things too seriously, and I don't think that pets are particularly bad for people. But on the other hand, I think that pets have been somewhat overblown. I mean, there's books you can buy that will tell you that pets will cure almost any ill that you have, and I know one book I won't mention that basically says, if everybody would get a pet, people would lay down their arms, and there would be world peace. There's no evidence, for instance, that swimming with dolphins cures autism.

What about the scientific studies that suggest that growing up with pets can lead to healthier immune systems because they are exposed to more bacteria, etc.?

I've looked at a bunch of those studies, and some have shown that kids with pets are less likely to get asthma, and that makes sense to me -- although there are one or two that say having pets increases asthma. But I think the preponderance of evidence says it has a good effect. A good study in England found that kids with pets were less likely to miss school by having a sick day.

But the other thing you have in these cases is that we have very few control studies. There are a lot of studies looking at the psychological well-being of people who have pets [where the people] are better off to begin with -- they have more money, they have more energy required to take care of a pet. So the problem we have is determining cause and effect. There are a few studies that I think are good that have found a cause and effect, but not many.

So is the solution just to come to terms with the disconnect between loving our cat and treating it like a family member and enjoying our fried chicken?

I think that's the human condition. I think this humanization of pets is really fascinating. I developed a tongue-in-cheek scale that I called "feeding kittens or boa constrictors" scale. I asked people, "Would it be OK to feed snakes versus cats certain types of food?" One was mice: Would it be OK to feed a mouse to a boa constrictor? Is it OK to feed a mouse to a cat?

Almost everyone said it was not OK to feed a mouse to a cat. I interviewed a student who had cats. I said, "Would you ever feed a dead mouse to your cat? You can buy them at the pet store." She said, "No!" She was horrified. And I asked why. She had this great quote. She said, "If my cat ate mice, it wouldn't be like me."

I love that. And that really gets it. When we admit cats and animals into our world, and we think of them like relatives and we think of them like us, it makes perfect sense for us to think that, yes, they'd rather have a gourmet natural duck entree out of a can than eat a mouse. No, my pet really enjoys dressing up for Halloween. And so we basically have drawn that moral circle so that we think of them more like us than like them. I don't really see that as changing.

Did you struggle with these issues yourself? Did you go through a vegetarian phase?

I never did that. I still struggle with cat ownership. I have a cat. I was going to write a postscript to the book, and I was going to talk about my moral issues as a cat owner knowing that, if I were a cat, I would like my owner to let me outside so that I could go kill things, which is the most fun thing in the world for a cat. And yet, it's going to put me at risk for the coyote that lives in my backyard or I'm going to go out and kill these creatures that don't deserve to die because my owner wants a cat. I started to write it, and I have 10 pages on it, and I wasn't even halfway there. I realized, no, I -- I'm still really conflicted.

Maybe that's your next book.

Maybe.


Kerry Lauerman

Kerry Lauerman is Salon's Editor in Chief. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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