(The following excerpt from Do We Care More About The Suffering Of Beasts Than Humans? by Arnold Arluke and Jack Levin recently appeared on nypost.com. To view it in its entirety click on the link below.)
Last week in Cophenhagen, the city’s zoo killed a 2-year-old giraffe named Marius with a bolt gun to prevent inbreeding. His body was dissected in front of schoolchildren, his remains then fed to hungry lions.
Despite 27,000 people signing a petition to stop the killing, and an offer of a new home, the zoo would not be swayed.
The story got international attention — and the public outcry was so extreme that the zoo’s scientific director received death threats.
At the same time, of course, violence raged across Syria, famine loomed in South Sudan and stories of children beaten or mistreated surfaced in America. Was there as large an outcry?
When reports of animal victimization reach the news, they seem to overshadow traumas and tragedies that befall human beings. Not a month passes, it seems, without at least one story of some act of animal cruelty followed by hundreds if not thousands of people denouncing it.
But do people really care more about harm to dogs than to humans?
To find out, we had 240 students at the school where we teach, Northeastern University, read one of four fictitious news stories that depicted either a puppy, an adult dog, a human infant or a 30-year-old human being severely beaten with a baseball bat. The students were then asked to rate how much sympathy and distress they felt for the assault victim.
Our results revealed a more complicated picture than assumed. Age, rather than species, seemed the primary influence on the reactions. The human infant elicited the most sympathy and distress from our students, but infants, puppies and adult dogs all got greater sympathy than the 30-year-old human.
The bottom line is that the subjects did not necessarily care more about dogs than people: They cared more about creatures who were perceived as innocent and helpless, regardless of whether they had two legs or four.
Full-grown adults are more likely to be seen as capable of taking care of themselves. Infants, puppies and adult dogs are not.
Given our results, why does it seem like many people care more about the plight of animals than humans? Perhaps the answer lies in the way these violent episodes are reported.
Human victims are, sadly, often relatively distant if not anonymous in the news, making it hard for people to identify so personally with them.
Of course, many people outraged by Marius’ killing didn’t live in Copenhagen and never visited her in person but still felt a long-distance connection to this baby giraffe because the media provided so many details of his young life — and death — along with photos of his cute face.
By contrast, media reports of horrific human violence tend to focus not on the victim but on the killers. Every aspect of their troubled childhood, failed relationships and lack of success is presented in great detail. In some cases, the violent perpetrator becomes a national celebrity. All too often, the killer is remembered for decades while the victims are quickly forgotten.
Maybe there is a lesson to be learned from how the media reports stories of animals being harmed. If people are becoming desensitized to the many reports of human suffering, then why not tell more about the human victim’s story?
Perhaps then more people will be just as troubled, if not more so, when they read about the victimization of fellow humans.