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Dog Food, Or Dogs As Food? Depends Where You Are

Oct 31, 2010 (All Things Considered)

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How much is that puppy in the window? Well, it depends on where you are, and what you're planning to do with him. In the United States, he's likely to end up a beloved family pet... somewhere else, he could be lunch.

Pretty much the only generalization you can make about our relationship with animals is that it's complicated, says psychology professor Hal Herzog. His new book, "Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard to Think Straight About Animals," explores that relationship from the farm to the table, and everywhere in between.

Herzog tells NPR's Guy Raz that both nature and nurture affect the way we see that hypothetical puppy in the window. "We have some animals in our homes, for example puppies and kittens, because they bring out our maternal and parental urges because they're so darn cute," he says. "The other thing is, it's not just that we don't eat dog, it's that the idea of eating dog is absolutely revolting... the idea of eating a dog is almost like eating a kid, it would be a form of cannibalism."

Big Eyes Equal Big Love

Herzog says that an animal's perceived cuteness can have a huge impact on how we feel about it. "There was a study done in Europe, and they found that the biggest single factor on how people felt about the protection of endangered species was how big its eyes were," he says. And that means pandas get loads of love, while the equally endangered Chinese giant salamander is left in the cold. "It's a hundred-pound, six-foot bag of brown slime with little beady eyes, but it's very very endangered. It's the world's largest amphibian, and deserves to be protected."

But Herzog says he no longer thinks this disconnect means we're hypocritical in our attitudes towards animals. "I stopped using the word 'hypocrisy' while I was writing this book," he says. "I think of it now as the human condition. And I think these issues really transcend our relationships with animals, they apply to so much of human moral life."

The Short Sad Life Of A Fast Food Chicken

Herzog doesn't shy away from the messier areas of that moral life. He devotes one section of the book to the underground phenomenon of cockfighting, and comes away with an uncomfortable conclusion: "A McDonald's chicken a suffers a much worse fate" than a gamecock, he tells Raz, "and I suspect you would be with me on this if I described the life of a game rooster and the life of a McDonald's chicken."

A gamecock lives for several years, often in pampered luxury, before it goes to its fate; a chicken destined for the plate lives about seven weeks, often in terrible, painful squalor.

"Now this is in no way to argue that cockfighting should be legal," Herzog says. "I don't think it should be legal. But on the other hand, it is a bit of a paradox that people get so bent out of shape about fighting roosters, and the suffering of chickens is probably the world's greatest animal welfare problem."

Animal Therapy?

Countless studies have been done on the effects of human-animal interaction: can swimming with dolphins cure your autistic child? Does petting a cat bring your blood pressure down? Do pet owners live longer?

Just like everything in human-animal relations, it's complicated. "It depends on the way you ask the question," says Herzog. For example, dolphin therapy advocates make extravagant claims about the number of conditions that can be cured by a dip in the dolphin pool— everything from autism to cancer, spinal injuries and Down syndrome. But Herzog says researchers really haven't found much evidence to back up those claims.

Some human-animal interactions are definitely beneficial: Herzog cites studies showing that bringing animals into nursing homes and prisons can improve morale. But surprisingly, it turns out that your family pet may not have a huge impact on your well-being. Herzog says he loves his own cat, Tilly, very much. But "there's really no evidence that in general, owning a pet makes people live longer," he says. "There's very little evidence that owning a pet makes people happier."

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