Why do so many vegetarians go back to eating meat?
Which is worse: cockfighting or factory-farmed chicken? How many laboratory mice should we sacrifice to find a cure for cancer - or baldness? What's the difference between the pests we lay traps for, the pets we pamper and the animals we eat?
Psychology professor Hal Herzog has spent his career plumbing the depths of humanity's frequently twisted relationship with animals and has chronicled his findings in a new book, Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why it's So Hard to Think Straight About Animals.
It's a fascinating read for anyone who has ever wondered what their dog or cat or boa constrictor was thinking, then wondered if they were crazy for caring so much, especially as they bit into a juicy hamburger. The answer? Yes, maybe a little bit crazy. But that's only human.
Clinging to inconsistent beliefs about animals is part of the human condition, Dr. Herzog writes: "When I first started studying animal-human interactions, I was troubled by the flagrant moral incoherence I have descried in these pages - vegetarians who sheepishly admitted to me they ate meat; cockfighters who proclaimed their love for their roosters; purebred-dog enthusiasts whose desire to improve the breed has created generations of genetically defective animals; hoarders who cause untold suffering to the creatures living in filth they claim to have rescued.
"I have come to believe that these sorts of contradictions are not anomalies or hypocrisies. Rather they are inevitable. And they show we are human."
One of Dr. Herzog's most interesting forays into the world of animal love/hate is his exploration of cockfighting - a blood sport in which two roosters are fitted with sharp metal blades and pitted against one another in a fight to the death, for the amusement and wagering purposes of spectators. Sounds horrible, which is why it's illegal throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Dr. Herzog, who teaches at Western Carolina University in North Carolina, spent time with cockfighters and was struck by their proclamations of love for the animals.
While not won over to the notion of cockfighting as a noble sport, he contrasted the life of a fighting rooster to that of the average broiler chicken. The gamecock gets to run around outside, chase hens, enjoy fresh air, eat a nice diet and generally get pampered for about two years before either killing or being killed in a dirt pen one Saturday night. The future McNugget lives for 42 days without ever seeing sun or sky, often lying in its own excrement, eating processed poultry chow, before being stuffed into a crate and carted to the slaughterhouse.
If you were reincarnated as a chicken, which would you rather be?
And if you agree with Dr. Herzog that you would rather be the gamecock, what does it say about society that cockfighting is illegal while raising broiler chickens is a thriving industry? What does it say about you, every time you chow down on a chicken sandwich? This is the kind of rabbit hole you go down once you start questioning assumptions about animals. (For the record, Dr. Herzog does think cockfighting should remain illegal.)
Dr. Herzog has a way of gently skewering some of the more misty-eyed beliefs we hold about our furry friends. He reviews claims about the benefits of pet ownership, for example. While studies showing that dogs improve human health get lots of media coverage (and I am surely guilty of this), he points out the less-noted studies showing that pets have no effect - or even a detrimental effect - on the owners' health.
In the face of countless inspiring "dog saves owner" stories, he relates the research of psychologist Bill Roberts at the University of Western Ontario, who decided to test what Dr. Herzog calls the "Lassie Get Help" hypothesis. He had owners walk their dog in a park with one other bystander nearby; the owner would then clutch his chest and fall to the ground, feigning unconsciousness. Would their dogs come to their aid, Lassie-style, running to the bystander or barking to attract attention?
No. Not one dog in the experiment so much as whimpered for help. In reality, Timmy would probably still be stuck at the bottom of that well.
Thinking so much about animals is bound to change your habits somehow, and that has been true for Dr. Herzog. He has stopped eating veal, tries to buy humanely raised meat and has cut back on eating flesh in general, he tells me in an e-mail. He has also learned to cut us all some ethical slack: "I have become more tolerant of the ethical inconsistencies I see in myself, my students and in the people around me," he says.
One inconsistency he can't rid himself of concerns his cat, Tilly - even though owning an outdoor cat is tough to reconcile with his love for animals. Domestic cats are estimated to kill upward of a million songbirds annually in North America.
"She is an efficient predator whose greatest pleasure is stalking small mammals and birds," he writes. "I feel guilty for having a serial killer for a companion animal."
Rebecca Dube blogs about pets at http://paws.ly.