PET, BEAST OR FEAST?

Book by psychologist Hal Herzog explores human-animal relationships

By TERESA KILLIAN TATE

Why psychology professor Hal Herzog is not an animal rights activist is a question that has dogged him. “That, in a way, is why I wrote the book – to try to figure out why,” said Herzog. In “Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals,” Herzog explores how people address the range of questions and moral issues linked to their relationships with animals. Is it OK to kill animals just because they taste good? Why is it OK to feed a mouse but not a kitten to your pet boa constrictor? Can dogs read people’s minds? Are pit bulls inherently dangerous? Do most children who abuse animals really become violent adults? (Herzog says they don’t.)

“I really changed my mind about human nature in many ways while writing this book,” said Herzog. “It strikes me that one of the things that separates us from animals is we are incredibly different across cultures. For me, that plays out in the world of how we treat animals. Take, for example, dogs. We love dogs. If you ask most people, ‘Is it OK to eat your family dog?’ they say, ‘What a crazy question.’ But historically humans frequently ate dogs, and dogs were probably domesticated in part because people used them as an emergency food source. Even today, people regularly eat dogs in parts of Asia. And in parts of Africa, people keep dogs to keep away strangers and elephants, but they don’t let the dogs in the house, never pet them and don’t give them names. We see these enormous differences in our cultures.”

Psychology professor Hal Herzog says a childhood fascination
with snakes played a role in his interest in people’s relationships
with animals.

Herzog first became interested in animal behavior – especially that of reptiles – as a child. He kept about a dozen snakes as pets, and one day was called home from school because his mother found one while cleaning the house. “I knew the snake had escaped, but I didn’t want to tell her,” said Herzog. He went on to conduct research in animal behavior and even developed a personality test for baby snakes. He later studied chickens, and as part of his research interviewed and observed people who engaged in cockfighting. “That’s when I really realized the morality of our interactions with animals was complicated and very interesting,” said Herzog.

He wanted the book to be a good read – entertaining and informative, and early reviewers think he succeeded. Robert M. Sapolsky, a neuroscientist at Stanford University and author of “Monkeyluv” and “A Primate’s Memoir,” said Herzog’s book poses surprising and challenging questions: “As Hal Herzog persuasively argues, we think and feel about animals in all sorts of ways, often in a highly confused, irrational manner that tells us tons about our values as a species.” Meanwhile, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, author of “The Hidden Life of Deer: Lessons from the Natural World,” said: “I don’t know when I’ve read anything more comprehensive about our highly involved, highly contradictory relationships with animals, relationships which we mindlessly, placidly continue, no matter how irrational they may be.”

For Herzog, writing the book answered his own questions about why he has pets but is not a vegetarian and does not consider himself an animal rights activist. “My answer is that it comes down to intuition – that ethical decisions are not really made by your brain,” said Herzog. “In ethics, the real action is in your heart. Your brain’s job is to justify your gut-level decisions. It becomes a question of logic versus emotion.”