Do We Care More for Animals than People?

Reading about the anger stoked by Karl Rove’s plan to go dove hunting reminded me of a recent oped by Vicki Haddock in the Chronicle, where she explores why animals sometimes receive more sympathy than people. A few anecdotes from the story are telling, and so totally California:

…football star Michael Vick pleaded not guilty to criminal charges after authorities raiding his home found 66 angry dogs, a dog-fighting pit and bloodstained carpets. An indictment claims that losing dogs were drowned, hanged and shot, or soaked and electrocuted.

Also last week, an 8-week-old rescued kitten named Adam underwent skin grafting at a Sonoma County animal hospital after having been caged and deliberately set on fire. Two 15-year-old girls stand charged with felony animal cruelty.

In both cases, as in other notorious incidents of animal cruelty, public outrage has been fierce — so much so that it almost seems to outpace our empathy for human affliction.


Meanwhile, thousands of dollars are cascading in from around the globe to help pay for Adam’s grueling recovery. The staff at the Animal Hospital in Cotati has been overwhelmed with well-wishers.


It’s worth asking why animal victims sometimes evoke our emotions more than human ones. (Recall the case of the mountain lion that attacked jogger Barbara Schoener jogging in El Dorado County. After authorities killed the cougar, donations to find a home for the cougar’s orphaned cub were running more than double what people pledged to a trust fund for Schoener’s children, until the national press trumpeted the irony.)[This has been debunked, thanks TTT!]

Similarly, some Santa Rosa residents are wondering why a wounded kitten triggered a greater outpouring than the killing of a 16-year-old boy in the same Apple Valley neighborhood last year. A reward was issued on behalf of the feline victim, not the human one. And the cost of kitten Adam’s care could nourish a village of Sudanese children.

She goes on to discuss the various forces at play–pampering pets, the replacement of children with pets, animals’ helplessness, anthropomorphism, the link between cruelty to animals in childhood and adult sociopathy. But I think this is the best explanation:

One is practically theological. We tend to regard animals as pure, blameless, sinless — and thus lacking responsibility, however unfortunate their fates. Mahatma Gandhi, a vegetarian who famously contended that a nation’s morality could be judged by the way its animals are treated, observed “the more helpless a creature, the more entitled to protection by man from the cruelty of man.”

Researchers have found that when humans suffer abuse or tragedy, the rest of us subconsciously look for ways to distinguish our situations from theirs as a way of tamping down our own anxieties.

Thus we rationalize that a crime victim shouldn’t have ventured into a certain neighborhood at a certain time, or consorted with people of ill-repute, or been careless about locking their doors, or dabbled in drugs — whatever might have jacked up their risk of jeopardy.

We simply don’t play the same “blame game” with animals.