Our divergent relationship with animals

Some creatures are part of the family, others are part of the dinner. Jacqui Corcoran explores our divergent relationship with animals.

Once upon a time there was a bull called Benjy who lived on a farm in Co Mayo where he was expected to make the girl cows happy. There was a problem though. Benjy was gay.

Benjy became an internet sensation when he was rescued from imminent slaughter by a hefty donation from one of the creators of The Simpsons. The wider public joined the Hollywood mogul in taking Benjy into their hearts. A fundit campaign, to assist in his happy retirement at a UK animal sanctuary, raised thousands.

Benjy’s fundit campaign didn’t cross my radar at the time, but I might well have been daft/soft/ caring enough to throw a few quid in the pot. Animals can make many of us otherwise sensible souls go gooey. A Facebook post featuring a picture of my dog is generally more likely to get feedback, than posts or shares of, say, more worthy human issues.

I’m a good mother, but when my son asked recently if I loved the family dog more than him, while I was categorical — “No, of course not” — it did get me thinking. My son was referring to Ollie, our labrador. I love my three children much, much more than I love Ollie, but I do, most definitely, love that dog.

So what is it about pets and (some) other animals that melts our hearts? A straw pole featuring myself and Ollie reckons it’s his ever-cheerful nature; the fact that he doesn’t leave a trail of laundry in his wake; the way he gives me a boost every time we set off on a walk.

It’s that he never, ever answers back and is happy to be seen in my company, even if I’m wearing crocs. Of course, my personal theories are nothing but a doggy-bore’s hunches, but the science behind our love of pets has been gaining ground in the realms of academia and popular psychology.

Limerick-born Eimear McLoughlin has an MA in anthrozoology, the emerging scientific study of human-animal relations. One of her areas of study is homosexual behaviour in animals, which led her to write a paper on the public reaction to Benjy the bull.

“I think the driving force behind his popularity was the impending same-sex marriage referendum. His plight captured the zeitgeist of burgeoning public sentiment in Ireland. He became a symbol for sexual freedom.

“There are many perspectives that seek to answer why we love animals so much.

"Industrialisation saw rural populations converge into densely populated urban centres where they were distanced from animals they ate.

"The companion animal was invited into the home and into the family, becoming part of the tapestry of our lives. We love our pets so much simply because we allow ourselves to, despite the risks of getting hurt when they leave us.”

In his book, Animals and Us, John Bradshaw debunks some of the myths around the benefits of animal-human bonds. If walking the dog makes us feel good, he writes. “It’s because we’re walking, the dog is incidental.” The roots of our affection for animals lies in the past.

Bradshaw’s research delves back into prehistoric times, when survival hinged on prowess as a hunter-gather and it was advantageous to try to figure out what prey might be thinking. It also helped as humans moved to pastoral lifestyles and set out to domesticate animals.

As time went on, the woman who cared for a young animal would be seen as one who had good mothering potential and was more attractive as a mate. Bonding with animals gave evolutionary advantages.

In his book Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat, psychologist Hal Herzog explores the subject of humanity’s divergent attitudes towards animals.

He asks questions like “who enjoyed a better quality of life — the chicken on a dinner plate or the rooster who died in a Saturday-night cockfight? Why is it wrong to eat the family dog?”

I won’t be putting my four-legged fella in a stir-fry any time soon, but it gives food for thought when you consider that while a puppy can be regarded as one of the family in this part of the world, in other countries a puppy would be regarded as something of a pariah, and in yet others a perfectly good meal.

We might coo over a cute little pink-nosed white mouse, or feel sympathetic towards a laboratory mouse, but who would feel anything other than horror hearing those little footsteps scurrying around their attic?

Our moral stance on animals is inconsistent, concludes Herzog, who asks: “How can 60% of Americans believe simultaneously that animals have the right to live and that people have the right to eat them?”

If Herzog is right in another assertion of his — that keeping pets is a self-perpetuating trend that feeds on its own popularity, then it’s a trend that won’t be going away soon.

In a study, 40% of pet owners in Ireland admitted to buying their pets Christmas presents.

I’m not one of the club on that statistic, but count myself in with the 91% who recognise their dogs and cats as members of the family. It’s nice to know I’m not alone.



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