We love our pets. Two thirds of Americans live with an animal, and according to a 2011 Harris poll, 90 percent of pet owners think of their dogs and cats as members of the family. These relationships have benefits. For example, in a survey by the American Animal Hospital Association, 40 percent of married female dog owners reported they received more emotional support from their pet than from their husband or their kids. The pet products industry calls this “the humanization of pets.” One of my colleagues recently spent $12,000 on cancer treatments for her best friend Asha, a Labrador retriever.
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 that people?
Take, for example, police shootings. The FBI claims that about 400 people a year are killed by police in “justifiable homicides.” The number of incidents in which cops shoot dogs is very hard to pin down. You sometimes hear the claim that a dog is shot by a police officer “every 98 minutes.” That’s would be about 5,000 dogs a year. But Merritt Clifton, editor of Animals 24-7 thinks, based on his analyses of media reports, that the number of dogs killed each year in “confrontational incidents” with cops is probably between 300 and 500 – about the same as human cop shootings.
Because of high profile incidents like the death last week of Walter Scott in Charleston, South Carolina, and, of course, the case of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, death-by-cop is in the news. But, as is illustrated by two shootings that took place within 24 hours last year in Idaho, it is not always the case that we value people over pets.
On July 8, 2014, Jeanetta Riley, pregnant and a mother of two, was killed by police officers outside a hospital in Sandpoint, Idaho. Riley reportedly had a history of drug addiction and alcoholism, and she was drunk, incoherent, and waving a filet knife at the three police officers who showed up at the hospital. A dashboard video camera mounted on one of the police cars shows that Riley was at least 10 feet from the cops when they opened fire. Why the police opted to shoot Riley rather than zap a 100-pound woman with one of the Tasers they were carrying is unclear. The officers were subsequently exonerated, no apology was given to Riley’s family, and the story never made national news until it was recently dredged up by a reporter from The Guardian .
Fast forward 14 hours and travel 50 miles south to a café in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho where Craig Jones was eating lunch, having locked his dog Arfee in the cab of his van. Jones had rolled the windows part-way down so the dog would stay cool. Unfortunately, when the two-year old black Lab mix started barking, someone called the cops. Officer Dave Kelly caught the call. Kelly later claimed that when he approached the van, Arfee (who was initially described as a vicious pit bull) lunged at him, though the van’s window was mostly rolled up. Kelly put a bullet in Arfee’s chest.
This time the media did respond. A headline in the New York Daily News proclaimed “Idaho Cop Shoots, Kills Adorable Black Lab Named Arfee After Mistaking Him For Aggressive Pit Bull.” A “Justice For Arfee” Facebook Page was soon created, and a shadowy organization called “Anonymous” posted several ominous videos on YouTube vaguely threatening Coeur d’Alene police officers with retribution. Two months later, when a police review board ruled that the shooting of the dog was unjustified, the citizens of Coeur d’Alene staged a “Justice for Alfee” rally, demanding that Officer Kelly be fired. The police department issued an official apology to Jones who was awarded $80,000 in damages for the loss of his pet.
Testing the Pets Over People Hypothesis
As The Guardian article indicates, the mismatch between the public outrage over the shootings of a dog and a pregnant mom a mere 14 hours and 50 miles apart is striking. But was this an aberration? In the wake of Ferguson and now South Carolina, police shootings of human beings have been big news. Do the tragic cases of Jeanetta Riley and Arfee support the view that our love of animals trumps our concern for people?
Two sociologists at Northeastern University have tested the claim that people are more upset by news stories of animal abuse than they are about attacks directed toward humans. The researchers, Arnold Arluke, an authority on human-animal relationships, and Jack Levin, an expert on serial killers and mass murders, had college students read fake news accounts on a crime wave in Boston. For instance, one of the articles included the statement, “According to witnesses present, one particularly vicious assault involved a one-year-old puppy that was beaten with a baseball bat by an unknown assailant. Arriving on the scene a few minutes after the attack, a police officer found the victim with one broken leg, multiple lacerations, and unconscious. No arrests have been made in the case.”
The subjects in the experiment did not know the articles were bogus. Nor did they know that there were actually four slightly different versions of the newspaper articles, each portraying a different victim: a puppy, an adult dog, a human infant, or a human adult. After they read one of the four news stories, each subject completed a scale which measured how much empathy and emotional distress they felt for the victim of the beating.
Arluke and Levin reported the results of their study at the 2013 meeting of the American Sociological Association. As you might guess, the story in which the victim was a human adult elicited, by far, the lowest levels of emotional distress in the readers. The “winner” when it came to evoking empathy was not the puppy but the human infant. The puppy, however, came in a close second with the adult dog not far behind. Arluke and Levin concluded that species is important when it comes to generating sympathy with the downtrodden. But they argued that the critical difference in responses to the stories was based on our special concern for creatures that are innocent and defenseless.
Save Your Dog or a Stranger?
In another experiment, psychologists at Georgia Regents University also explored circumstances in which people value animals over human lives. In the study, 573 individuals were asked who they would save in a series of hypothetical scenarios in which a dog and a person were in the path of an out-of-control bus. The researchers found that decisions to save the person or the dog were affected by three factors. The first: who the person in danger was. The subjects were much more likely to save the dog over a foreign tourist than, say, their best friend or a sibling. The second factor was the dog. Forty percent of participants said they would save their personal pet at the expense of a foreign tourist. But only 14 percent claimed they would sacrifice the tourist when the animal in the scenario was described generically as “a dog.” Finally, as other studies have found, women care more about animals than men do. In the run-away-bus scenario, female subjects were nearly twice as likely as males to say they would save a dog over a person.
Living With Moral Inconsistency
The bottom line is that, at least in some circumstances, we do value animals over people. 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.
Most people, it seems, live easily with what the environmental philosopher Chris Diehm calls “the paradox of the cats in our houses and cows on our plates.” Go figure.