Some Are More Equal Than Others

By Sharp, Rob | The Independent (London, England), October 11, 2010 | Go to article overview
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Some Are More Equal Than Others


Sharp, Rob, The Independent (London, England)


Dogs are pets, snakes are scary and chickens are dinner. But why do we see animals in such different ways? The field of 'anthrozoology' has the answers, says Rob Sharp

On a car journey several years ago at two in the morning, author and psychologist Hal Herzog turned to his fellow passenger, Amnesty International campaigner Tony Dunbar, to discuss the cockfight the pair had just witnessed in a small North Carolina township. Herzog was surprised by Dunbar's response to the carnage. "There are bigger moral problems," the charity worker said.

You might expect a representative of Amnesty International to have expressed concern. After all, cockfighting is illegal across most of the United States. However, this cruel pursuit, in which gamecocks tear each other limb from limb, is, Herzog argues, a small problem compared to other types of animal cruelty.

While there are still isolated incidents of cockfighting in Britain and America, in the US 9 billion animals, including cattle, sheep and bison, are slaughtered for food every year. In Europe, that figure stands at 300 million. Many of these animals are kept in inhumane conditions. In Britain, for example, campaigners Compassion in World Farming continually raise the issue of dairy cows' poorly ventilated living conditions, and the long distances they are transported before they are slaughtered. But meat consumption in Britain is now 50 per cent higher than it was 40 years ago.

As human beings, we find it easy to divorce ourselves from this bloodbath. And that's bizarre, given that we treat animals well in other areas. Britons keep 16 million pet dogs and cats. There are 5 million pet snakes and lizards here. As a society, we cage and consume some animals, but treat others like valued members of our families. What is the psychological basis of this hypocrisy?

Herzog, one of America's foremost psychologists specialising in human-animal relationships, is dedicated to understanding our often contradictory behaviour towards different species. In his new book Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat, he tackles the history of keeping animals in our homes ,and attempts to explain why we like and loathe certain creatures.

"My passion for the subject comes from all sorts of places," explains the author. "I once found myself living in a place where my neighbours were cockfighters. The thing was, they seemed like nice people; they just happened to bet on roosters on a Saturday night. I realised my justification for eating meat wasn't any different. It got me thinking."

Herzog is an anthrozoologist. It's nowadays a burgeoning field of science, what he calls "the study of human-animal interactions". Courses in human-animal interactions are taught in more than 150 US colleges and universities. Britain's University of Southampton has its own Anthrozoology Institute, and the specialism is also to be found at Cambridge's Veterinary Centre. The University of Wales at Lampeter offers an MA. Anthrozoology analyses why we like certain animals. The answer might just be that some of them look like us. The late Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould thought Walt Disney drew Mickey Mouse with big eyes to make him resemble a human child. "We are, in short, fooled by an evolved response to our own babies and we transfer our reaction to the same set of features in other animals," he said. You could say it's a form of Freudian "projection". We are subconsciously imposing a set of rules of behaviour on our pets, because of their resemblance to our human family. The closer the match, the more familiar the animals seem.

This also explains why we loathe certain animals. In a 2001 Gallup poll, Americans were asked about the things that "made them sweat". Four of their top 10 fears were animals, with snakes topping the list (their other common animal fears were of spiders, mice and dogs).

University of California anthropologist Lynne Isbell believes that the primate brain was shaped by evolution to specialise in visually detecting snakes.

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