We’re discussing animal ethics with author Hal Herzog. In a follow up to our pets episodes, we look at how we treat animals very differently depending on whether we think of them as pets, food, or work animals. Why do some cultures eat cows and others don’t? Why do some cultures not have pets at all? And is it okay to breed animals like dogs that have significant health problems even though we love them? Herzog is the author of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals.
Take a rabbit. You may see wild rabbits running around your backyard, or you may have friends who keep rabbits as pets. Some people eat rabbits. And in still other situations rabbits are used for scientific or cosmetic research. What’s right and wrong in the way we treat animals?
“One thing that enables us to negotiate these sort of difficult questions is that we have category systems in our head so we can put a rabbit in the pet category. We can put it in the meat category. We can put it in the pest category. And then we treat them completely, completely differently,” Herzog says.
When we think about dogs in American culture at least, most of us think about pets. Dogs that live in our house, like a member of the family. But that’s not how dogs are treated in all parts of the world. In some cultures dogs are considered unclean; they are pests and people would hardly ever keep them as pets. On the other hand, in some countries dogs are considered lunch. “Roughly 25 million dogs a year [are] eaten, usually in parts of Southeast Asia. They are items on the menu,” Herzog tells But Why. “There are big differences in how people relate to dogs.”
That might surprise some kids. In fact you might think anyone willing to eat a dog is a terrible person but have no problem chowing down on a hamburger. However, in some other countries cows are considered sacred. In many parts of India it’s actually illegal to slaughter a cow. So our views about what’s appropriate when it comes to animals depends a lot on geography, religion, culture, and how we’re raised.
Herzog says some cultures don’t have pets at all. And in other cultures, the kinds of animals kept as pets have changed over the years. In American culture, songbirds were once popular pets, along with pocket pets like mice.