The way we think about other species often defies logic. Consider Judith Black. When she was 12, Judith decided that it was wrong to kill animals just because they taste good. But what exactly is an animal? While it is obvious that dogs and cats and cows and pigs are animals, it was equally clear to Judith that fish were not. They just didn’t feel like animals to her. So for the next 15 years, this intuitive biological classification system enabled Judith, who has a PhD in anthropology, to think of herself as a vegetarian, yet still experience the joys of smoked Copper River salmon and lemon-grilled swordfish.
This twisted moral taxonomy worked fine until Judith ran into Joseph Weldon, a graduate student in biology. When they first met, Joseph, himself a meat eater, tried to convince Judith that there is not a shred of moral difference between eating a Cornish hen and eating a Chilean sea bass. After all, he reasoned, both birds and fish are vertebrates, have brains, and lead social lives.
Fortunately, their disagreement over the moral status of mahi mahi did not prevent them from falling in love. They married, and her new husband kept the fish-versus-fowl discussion going over the dinner table. After three years of philosophical to-and-fro, Judith sighed one evening and gave in: “OK, I see your point. Fish are animals.”
But now she faced a difficult decision: She could either quit eating fish, or stop thinking of herself as a vegetarian. Something had to give. A week later, friends invited Joseph to a grouse hunt. Though he had no experience with a shotgun, he managed to shoot a bird, and he showed up at home, dead carcass in hand. Joseph then proceeded to pluck and cook the grouse, which he served to his wife for dinner along with wild rice and raspberry sauce.
In an instant, 15 years of moral high ground went down the drain. (“I am a sucker for raspberries,” Judith told me.) The taste of roasted grouse opened the floodgates, and there was no going back. Within a week, she was chowing down on cheeseburgers. Judith had joined the ranks of ex-vegetarians, a club that outnumbers current vegetarians in the United States by a ratio of three to one.
Then there is Jim Thompson, a 25-year-old doctoral student in mathematics. Before beginning graduate school, Jim had worked in a poultry research laboratory in Lexington, Kentucky, where one of his jobs was dispatching baby chicks at the end of the experiments. For a while, this posed no problem for Jim. However, things changed one day when he was looking for a magazine to read on a plane and his mother handed him a copy of The Animals’ Agenda, a magazine that advocated animal rights. He never ate meat again.
Over the next couple of months, Jim quit wearing leather shoes, and he pressured his girlfriend to go veg. He even began to question the morality of keeping pets, including his beloved white cockatiel. One afternoon Jim looked at the bird flitting around her cage and a little voice in his head whispered, “This is wrong.” He carried the bird into his backyard and released it into the gray skies of Raleigh, North Carolina. It was a great feeling, he told me. But then he sheepishly added, “I knew she wouldn’t survive, that she probably starved. I guess I was doing it for myself more than for her.”
Our relationships with animals can also be emotionally complicated. Twenty years ago, Carolyn fell head over heels for a 1,100-pound manatee. She had applied for a job—any job—at a small natural history museum in central Florida. The museum had an opening; they were looking for a caregiver for a 30-year-old sea cow named Snooty. Carolyn had no experience working with marine mammals, but they offered her the position anyway. She did not know that her life was about to change.
On the phylogenetic scale, Snooty falls somewhere between the Creature from the Black Lagoon and Yoda. When Carolyn introduced me to him, Snooty hooked his flippers over the edge of his pool, hoisted his head out of the water, and looked me straight in the eye, checking me out. While his brain was smaller than a softball, he seemed oddly wise. I found the experience unnerving. Not Carolyn. She was in love.
For over two decades, Carolyn’s life revolved around Snooty. She spent nearly every day with him. Food was a major part of their relationship. Manatees are vegetarians, and Carolyn fed him by hand—120 pounds of leafy green vegetables, mostly lettuce, every day.
But life with an aging sea cow has its downside. When she and her husband would sneak off for a week or two of vacation, Snooty would get in a funk and quit eating. All too often, Carolyn would get a call saying that Snooty was off his feed again, and she would rush back to ply him with a couple of bushels of iceberg lettuce.
At some point, Carolyn gave up going on vacations. That’s when her husband accused her of having her priorities screwed up, of loving a half-ton blob of blubber and muscle more than she loved him.
As a research psychologist, I have been studying human-animal relationships for 20 years, and I have found that the quirky thinking when it comes to animals that we see in Judith, Jim, and Carolyn is not the exception but the rule. I began to think seriously about the inconsistencies in our relationships with other species when I got a phone call from my friend Sandy. At the time, I was an animal behaviorist and Sandy was an animal rights activist who taught at my university.
“Hal, I heard that you were picking up kittens from the Jackson County animal shelter and feeding them to a snake. Is it true?”
I was completely taken aback.
“We do have a pet snake, but he is just a baby,” I told her. “He could not possibly swallow a kitten. And I like cats. Even if he were bigger, I would never let him eat a cat.”
Sandy apologized profusely. She said she figured the charge was not true, but that she just had to check. I told her I understood, but would appreciate it if she would assure her animal protection pals that I was not dipping into our community’s reservoir of unwanted cats to feed my son’s snake.
But then I started thinking about the moral implications of keeping a predator for a pet. We had acquired the baby boa by accident when I was a visiting scientist at the University of Tennessee, studying the development of defensive behaviors in reptiles. A man called and told me his seven-foot red-tail boa constrictor had given birth to 42 wriggling newborns.
The man had heard that I was a snake behaviorist and was looking for tips on how to keep the babies healthy and where he could find good homes for them. I recommended that he contact a reptile expert I knew at the university’s veterinary college for information on raising baby snakes, and agreed to adopt one of the babies myself.
Sam was a low-maintenance pet. He did not scratch the furniture, keep the neighbors awake, or require daily exercise. He was gentle—except for the time he tried to swallow Adam’s thumb. It was Adam’s fault. He made the mistake of lifting Sam out of his cage immediately after handling a friend’s pet hamster. Sam’s brain was about as big as an aspirin tablet, and he could not tell the difference between a rodent and a human hand. He just smelled meat. The accusation that the Herzog family was feeding kittens to snakes came a few weeks later.
In the following days, several questions kept nagging me. My accuser had inadvertently forced me to confront questions I had never really considered about the moral burdens of bringing animals into our lives. Snakes don’t eat carrots and asparagus. Given Sam’s need for meat, was it ethical to keep a boa constrictor for a pet? Is having a pet that gets its daily ration of meat from a can of cat food morally preferable to living with a snake? And are there circumstances in which feeding kittens to boa constrictors might actually be morally acceptable?
The person who started the rumor about me lived with several cats that she allowed to roam the woods around her house. Like many cat lovers, she conveniently ignored the fact that from lions to tabbies, all members of the family Felidae eat flesh for a living. Each day the cats of America chow down on a wide array of meat. The pet-food shelves of my local supermarket are piled high with six-ounce tins of cow, sheep, chicken, horse, turkey, and fish. Even dried cat foods are advertised as containing “fresh meat.” With about 94 million cats in America, the numbers add up. If each cat consumes just two ounces of meat daily, en masse they consume nearly 12 million pounds of flesh—the equivalent of 3 million chickens—every single day.
In addition, cats, unlike snakes, are recreational killers. It is estimated that a billion small animals a year fall victim to the hunting instincts of our pet cats. Oddly, many cat owners don’t seem to care about the devastation their feline friends cause to wildlife. In a cruel irony, many cat owners also enjoy feeding birds in their backyards, inadvertently luring legions of hapless towhees and cardinals to their deaths at the claws of the family pet. It is likely that at least 10 times as many furry and feathered creatures are killed each year as a result of our love of cats as are used in biomedical experiments.
So, pet cats cause havoc. What about pet snakes? Well, first, there are a lot fewer of them. In addition, each snake consumes only a fraction of the flesh that a cat does. According to Harry Greene, a Cornell University herpetologist, an adult boa living in a Costa Rican rainforest consumes maybe half a dozen rats a year. This means that a medium-size pet boa constrictor needs less than five pounds of meat a year. A pet cat requires far more flesh. At two ounces a day, the average cat would consume about 50 pounds of meat in a year. Objectively, the moral burden of enjoying the company of a cat is 10 times higher than that of living with a pet snake.
About 2 million unwanted cats, many of them kittens, are euthanized in animal “shelters” in the United States each year. Their bodies are cremated. Wouldn’t it make more sense to make these carcasses available to snake fanciers? After all, these cats are going to die anyway and fewer mice and rats would be sacrificed to satisfy the dietary needs of the pythons and king snakes living in American homes. Seems like a win-win, right?
Yikes—I had inadvertently painted myself into a logical corner in which feeding the bodies of kittens to boa constrictors was not only permissible but morally preferable to feeding them rodents. But while the logical part of my brain may have concluded that there was not much difference, the emotional part of me was not buying the argument at all. I found the idea of feeding the bodies of cats to snakes revolting.
The boa constrictor incident got me thinking about other instances of morally problematic interactions between people and animals that I had encountered. For instance, my graduate school friend Ron Neibor studied how the brain reorganizes itself after injury. Cats, unfortunately, were the best model for the neural mechanisms he was studying. He employed a standard neuroscience technique: He surgically destroyed specific parts of the animals’ brains to observe how their abilities recovered over the succeeding weeks and months. The problem was that Ron liked his cats. His study lasted a year, during which time he became attached to the two dozen animals in his lab. On weekends, he would drive to the lab, release his cats from their cages, and play with them. They had become pets.
His experimental protocol required that he confirm the location of the neurological lesions in the animals in the experimental group by examining their brain tissue. Part of this procedure, technically referred to as perfusion, is grisly. Each animal is injected with a lethal dose of anesthetic. Then formalin is pumped through its veins to harden the brain, and the animal’s head is severed from the body. Pliers are used to chip away the skull so the brain can be extracted intact and sliced into thin sections for microscopic analysis.
It took Ron several weeks to perfuse all the cats. His personality changed. A naturally cheerful and warmhearted person, he became tense, withdrawn, shaky. Several graduate students in his lab became concerned and offered to perfuse his cats for him. Ron refused, unwilling to dodge the moral consequences of his research. He did not talk much during the weeks he was “sacrificing” his cats. Sometimes his eyes were red, and he would look down as we passed in the halls.
These sorts of moral complexities also extend to man’s best friend, the dog. Most of the dogs living in American homes are simply companions, but our attitudes toward them can be convoluted. Over half of dog owners think of their pets as family members. A report by the American Animal Hospital Association found that 40 percent of the women they surveyed said they got more affection from their dogs than from their husbands or children. Yet there is a dark side to our interactions with dogs. One in 10 American adults is afraid of dogs, and dogs are second only to late-night noise as a source of conflict between neighbors. In a typical year, 4.5 million Americans are bitten by dogs, and two dozen people, mostly children, are killed by them.
From a dog’s-eye view, the human-pet relationship isn’t always rosy either. Between 2 million and 3 million unwanted dogs are euthanized in animal shelters each year. Then there are the horrendous genetic problems we have inflicted upon dogs in our attempts to breed the perfect pet. Take, for example, the English bulldog, a breed that dog behavior expert James Serpell refers to as a canine train wreck. Bulldogs have such monstrous heads that 90 percent of bulldog puppies have to be delivered by cesarean section. Their distorted snouts and deformed nasal passages make breathing a chore, even during sleep. They suffer from numerous maladies and have a tendency to suddenly drop dead from cardiac arrest.
Things are worse for dogs in Korea, where a puppy can be a pet or an item on the menu. Meat dogs, which are typically short-haired, largish animals that look disconcertingly like Old Yeller, are raised in horrific conditions before they are slaughtered, often by electrocution.
We usually ignore these contradictions, but as a psychologist, I began to be fascinated by them.
In the weeks after I was accused of feeding kittens to boas, I found myself thinking more about the paradoxes associated with our relationships with animals and less about my animal behavior studies. By conventional standards, my research program was a success. I published articles in good journals, received my share of grant funds, and presented my research at scholarly meetings. But it dawned on me that there were plenty of smart young scientists investigating topics like vocalizations in cotton rats, tool use in crows, and the offbeat reproductive habits of spotted hyenas (female hyenas give birth through their penises). On the other hand, there were only a handful of researchers trying to understand the often wacky ways that people relate to other species. Here was an emerging field, one that I could enter on the ground floor and possibly make a contribution to. Within a year, I had closed up my animal lab to concentrate full time on the psychology of human-animal interactions.
Since I shifted from studying animal behavior to studying animal people, my research has largely focused on individuals who love animals but who confront moral quandaries in their relationships with them—the veterinary student who tries not to cry when she euthanizes a puppy, the animal rights activist who can’t find someone to date because “just going out to eat becomes an ordeal,” the burly circus animal trainer whose life is completely focused on the giant bears he hauls around the country in the dreary confines of an 18-wheeler, the grizzled cockfighter who beams when I offer to take a picture of his beloved battle-scarred seven-time winner.
I have attended animal rights protests, serpent-handling church services, and clandestine rooster fights. I have interviewed laboratory animal technicians, big-time dog-show handlers, and small-time circus animal trainers. I’ve watched high school kids dissect their first fetal pigs and helped a farm crew slaughter cattle. I analyzed several thousand internet messages between biomedical researchers and animal rights activists as they tried—and ultimately failed—to find common ground.
My students have studied women hunters, dog rescuers, ex-vegetarians, and people who love pet rats. We have surveyed thousands of people about their attitudes toward rodeos, factory farming, and animal research. We have even pored over hundreds of back issues of sleazy supermarket tabloids for insight into our modern cultural myths about animals.
Like most people, I am conflicted about our ethical obligations to animals. The philosopher Strachan Donnelley calls this murky ethical territory “the troubled middle.” Those of us in the troubled middle live in a complex moral universe. I eat meat—but not as much as I used to, and not veal. I oppose testing the toxicity of oven cleaner and eye shadow on animals, but I would sacrifice a lot of mice to find a cure for cancer. And while I find some of the logic of animal liberation philosophers convincing, I also believe that our vastly greater capacity for symbolic language, culture, and ethical judgment puts humans on a different moral plane from that of other animals.
We middlers see the world in shades of gray rather than in the clear blacks and whites of committed animal activists and their equally vociferous opponents. Some argue that we are fence-sitters, moral wimps. I believe, however, that the troubled middle makes perfect sense because moral quagmires are inevitable in a species with a huge brain and a big heart. They come with the territory.
Hal Herzog is a leading expert on animal-human relations and a professor of psychology at Western Carolina University. Excerpted from the book Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat by Hal Herzog. Copyright © 2010 by Hal Herzog. Reprinted by arrangement with Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
Have something to say? Send a letter to firstname.lastname@example.org. This article first appeared in the July-August 2011 issue of Utne Reader.