Animals Like Us

Our wacky, complicated relationships with creatures great and small

| July-August 2011

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    Corey Arnold /
  • animals-like-us-2

    Corey Arnold /

  • animals-like-us-1
  • animals-like-us-2

I like pondering our relationships with animals because they tell a lot about who we are. —Marc Bekoff

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.


Cy Berg
7/6/2011 9:58:55 AM

Having recently returned to hunting, and being a lifelong fisherman, I make it a point to always eat whatever I harvest. I wish for those who do not approve of hunting or fishing to accept my principles because I do not take animals merely for sport. But if all possible positions on this issue are a part of one continuum, how can I be credible and expect others to accept my principles if I myself cannot be accepting of those who hunt for sport and not the meat? I cannot approve of hunting wolves because they share DNA with my own beloved dogs, but I know the science demonstrates that the populations are sufficient to not only allow some hunting of wolves, but may be necessary to control those populations. We do have some complicated relationships indeed.

Joel Preston Smith
6/29/2011 11:30:08 AM

This is an excellent article on the moral struggles of anyone who cares about animals (and works with them in some way, or keeps them as pets). Herzog did a great job of illustrating both the emotional and "quantitative" dimension (the impact of cats, for example, on wildlife) of our relationship with animals.

6/29/2011 8:15:55 AM

This article verifies what I've long suspected. I'm not the only one who's crazy. We are all crazy. We are evolutionary works in progress that have a long way to go to reach rational. Stuck between emotional decision makers and want to be logical thinkers we stumble through the dark corners of our strange existence. When we shoot a grouse and remove the lead pellets we used to assisinate the birdie, we poison ourselves by eating the lead tainted meat. When we eat our fishie dinner, we poison ourselves with the thousands of poisons we dump in our water. When we eat vegetarian, many of us poison ourselves with the same poisons we dump on our crops to murder the unsuspecting insects who are enjoying their vegetarian dinners. We shake our heads at dopers who lick poison frogs to get high and then go eat a big mac for lunch. Wouldn't it be nice if all the animal lovers of the earth learned to love fellow humans as much as thier animal pals? Well, who can blame us. The animals are more sensible.

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