If you’re a dog owner, and you often host dinner parties or get togethers, you’ve probably had a handful of house guests who, unfortunately, do not share your love of canines. Reactions can range from mild annoyance (“Yuck, it just licked my knee!”) to complete hysteria (“OH MY GOD GET THAT THING AWAY FROM ME”).
Aversion towards house pets like cats, dogs, or even bunnies, can be puzzling to many people who are used to the idea of having animals roaming the house. How can anybody dislike something so adorable? But mistrust and fear are actually perfectly warranted when you consider that most people, particularly those who grew up in urban environments, have very few nonhuman relationships (usually none, if they aren’t pet owners) and as a result lack the practice needed to interact with animals in a positive and meaningful way.
Yet, it is deemed reprehensible to respond with anything other than moral outrage and condemnation when faced with the news of a lethal shot fired at a gorilla in the Cincinnati Zoo, or the killing of two lions in a similar vein in Chile, or the alleged abuse of tigers at a Thai temple– all of which were reported over the past two weeks.
We know what kind of emotional reaction the media hopes to solicit by producing such news pieces: horror, despair and anger. They intend to provoke us into action and often succeed. Case in point: a petition calling for legal action to be taken against those responsible for the death of Harambe, the gorilla that was shot at the Cincinnati zoo in order to keep him from physically harming the young boy who had fallen into his enclosure, garnered close to 500,000 signatures in less than a week.
The universal motivation for public outcry is empathy, defined by psychologists Zahn-Waxler and Radke-Yarrow as the “vicarious affective response that is congruent with, and arises from, understanding of another individual’s emotional experience”. To varying degrees, every person who reads about abuse or neglect of an animal has the ability to imagine themselves in the position of the sufferer and the distress it might feel. The intensity of the emotions produced in response to the event, what researchers call moral shock, acts as the propelling mechanism behind the widespread anger and subsequent participation in animal activism.
So when someone does not demonstrate the moral shock that we expect to see, we perceive him to be a threat because his response indicates that he lacks empathy and may be capable of cruelty, aggression or even violence without remorse. Whether or not this conclusion is rational, and whether or not it is one that we draw subconsciously, I think most of us can agree that there is a distinct discomfort that fills the air when someone openly declares hatred/dislike towards animals or completely disregard for their welfare.
Empathy is also what causes us to interpret the behaviour of an animal and attribute it to the animal’s intentions and desires. While this tendency to anthropomorphise animals may help to protect other species by assigning a higher value to nonhuman life, it can also result in a bias towards the majestic and the lovable. Mistreatment of tigers in captivity might generate a much stronger reaction than if the animals in question were say, naked mole rats. The Ugly Animal Preservation Society was set up with this in mind and hopes to channel conservation efforts towards weird or odd-looking creatures that do not receive the same attention as the more aesthetically pleasing ones like pandas and lions.
For this reason, I think people who admit to caring little about animals, no matter how cute and cuddly, are justified in reserving their emotional resources for humans. Imagine how miserable life would be if we mourned the death of every fruit fly, earthworm and guppy. Evolutionarily, it makes sense to have empathy for those who are like us. In this scenario, empathy is a useful psychological adaptation that can motivate us to sacrifice our time and resources to improve the survival of our kin and, ultimately, ourselves. As the similarities between ourselves and others fade away, so does our empathy. It’s harder to care for the elderly cleaner working at the food court than our own grandmothers. It is harder to find the motivation to preserve other species than it is ours.
Logical arguments- such as how the fate of all living creatures are intimately intertwined or how crucial biodiversity is for the planet- do little to change our anthropocentrically-wired brains. And I think it’s okay to acknowledge that we can be extremely selfish as a species. We call ourselves the most intelligent lifeforms on the planet, so we should be able to fake a little kindness towards animals easily, whether or not we truly are sympathetic to their plight. After all, we’ve been faking it towards each other for hundreds of thousands of years already.