A Facebook acquaintance of mine recently posted about walking past a pet store where volunteers were outside pleading for pet rescue donations. They pointed out how many dogs and cats were euthanized each year, which made her wonder how people could be so fervent about animals when there are so many sick babies in the world.
It's not that those volunteers dislike babies — or grown-up humans, for that matter — but in some cases, they might simply like animals more.
You know the type, and you may even be one yourself. Some say it's due to unconditional love. Your cat doesn't care if you are in your pajamas all day. Your dog doesn't talk about you behind your back. But when it comes right down to it, does anyone really value animals above humans?
The story of two shootings
Psychology professor and author Hal Herzog looks at the "humanization of pets" in an editorial for Wired. Herzog is the author of "Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard To Think Straight About Animals."
"Newspaper editors tell me stories about animal abuse often generate more responses from upset readers than articles about violence directed toward humans. But do Americans really care more about pets than people?" Herzog asks.
He tells the story of two shootings that happened within 50 miles of each other in Idaho in 2014. One was Jeanetta Riley, a pregnant mother of two who was shot by police outside of a hospital while she incoherently waved a knife. The story didn't make much of a blip on the news radar.
Less than 14 hours later, police in another Idaho town were called about a report of a barking dog locked in a van. An officer claimed when he approached the vehicle the dog (which he misidentified as a pit bull) lunged at him, so he pulled the trigger. Turns out "Arfee" was a Lab and people became incensed at the shooting, which made national news. There was a "Justice for Arfee" Facebook page and a rally. In the end, the shooting was ruled unjustified, and the police department issued an official apology.
"The bottom line is that, at least in some circumstances, we do value animals over people," Herzog writes. "But the differences in public outrage over the deaths of Jeanetta Riley and Arfee illustrate a more general point. It is that our attitudes to other species are fraught with inconsistency. We share the earth with roughly 40,000 other kinds of vertebrate animals, but most of us only get bent out of shape over the treatment of a handful of species. You know the ones: the big-eye baby seals, circus elephants, chimpanzees, killer whales at Sea World, etc. And while we deeply love our pets, there is little hue and cry over the 24 horses that die on race tracks in the United States each week, let alone the horrific treatment of the nine billion broiler chickens American consume annually."
Creating a moral dilemma
We obviously love our pets. But to what extent?
Researchers set up a moral dilemma where they asked 573 participants what they would do if they had to choose between saving a dog or a person who had darted in front of a bus. The answers varied depending on the relationship they had with the dog and with the person.
In some scenarios, the dog was the participant's own personal dog versus a random canine. And the person was either a foreign tourist, a local stranger, distant cousin, best friend, grandparent or sibling.
The dilemma is something along the lines of, "A bus is traveling down the street. Your dog darts in front of it. At the same time, a foreign tourist steps in the path of the bus. Neither your dog nor the tourist has enough time to get out of the way and it's clear the bus will kill whichever one it hits. You only have time to save one. Which will you save?"
The subjects were much more likely to save the pet over a foreign tourist, versus someone closer to them. People were also much more likely to save their own dog versus a random dog. And women were twice as likely as men to save a dog over a person.
The study was published in the journal Anthrozoos.
Empathy for animals versus people
In another study, sociologists at Northeastern University had college students read made-up news stories in which a victim was attacked by a baseball bat "by an unknown assailant" and left unconscious with a broken leg and other injuries.
The participants were all given the same news story, but the victim in each case was either a 1-year-old baby, a 30-year-old adult, a puppy or a 6-year-old dog. They were asked to rate their feelings of empathy toward the victim after reading the story.
The researchers hypothesized that the victims' vulnerability — determined by their age, not species —would be the key factor in triggering the most concern in the participants.
The baby elicited the most empathy, with the puppy and adult dog not far behind. The adult person came in last.
"Contrary to popular thinking, we are not necessarily more disturbed by animal rather than human suffering," said study co-author Jack Levin, professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern University, in a statement.
"Our results indicate a much more complex situation with respect to the age and species of victims, with age being the more important component. The fact that adult human crime victims receive less empathy than do child, puppy, and full-grown dog victims suggests that adult dogs are regarded as dependent and vulnerable not unlike their younger canine counterparts and kids."
The research was first presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in 2013 and has recently been published in the journal Society & Animals.
Although the study focused on cats, Levin says he thinks the findings would be similar for cats versus people.
"Dogs and cats are family pets," he said. "These are animals to which many individuals attribute human characteristics."