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Americans Care More About Their Pets Than Their Fellow Citizens
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Americans Care More About Their Pets Than Their Fellow Citizens

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Who would you save from getting run over by an out-of-control bus: your pet dog or a fellow human, albeit someone you don’t know? While I for sure without a doubt will leap to save the man (or woman), data suggests that a majority of Americans would without flapping an eyelid try to save their beloved pet.

The findings of the study left me baffled. How on earth can anyone consider the life of a dog more important than the life of a human being. Don’t get me wrong, I have three pet cats, and I absolutely adore them, but if a day comes when I have to choose between saving a man and saving one of my pet cats, I will try to save the man.

A friend with whom I was discussing this issue reminded me of what the environmental philosopher Chris Diehm calls “the paradox of the cats in our houses and cows on our plates.” But the issue at hand is not deciding between the lives of two animals, but between saving the life of either an animal or a human.

That we as a society have come to value the companionship of a pet more than that of a human being is worrying. For example, in a survey by the American Animal Hospital Association, 40 percent of married female dog owners reported they received more emotional support from their pet than from their husband or their kids. 

About 70% of Americans households or about 85 million families live with a pet, 90 percent of pet owners think of their dogs and cats as members of the family, according to the 2017-2018 National Pet Owners Survey conducted by the American Pet Products Association (APPA). This is up from 56 percent of US households in 1988, the first year the survey was conducted. People view their relationship with pets as relationship-with-benefits, for them, their pet dog is not a pet, rather a cheap security guard, whom they can trust with their security more than they can trust their partner. And this relationship eventually matures to what the pet products industry calls “the humanization of pets.”

News stories about animal abuse often generate more responses from readers than articles about violence directed toward humans. Even today, when there are countless wars being fought, with America being involved directly or indirectly in most, there are more petitions on Change.org to save animals lives than to stop these wars and save human lives.

To understand the disparity between how Americans and the American media treats the death of a human being and an animal’s death let’s look at an example. On July 8, 2014, Jeanetta Riley, a pregnant mother of two, was killed by police officers outside a hospital in Sandpoint, Idaho. According to available records, Riley reportedly had a history of drug addiction and alcoholism, and during the time of the shooting she was drunk, incoherent, and was threatening the police officers who showed up at the hospital with a filet knife. A dashboard video camera mounted on one of the police cars showed that she was pretty close to the cops when they opened fire. She died because of the firing. There should have been a public uproar, and demand for justice. After all, were the police officers not trained and equipped to deal with a drunk woman, the police officers could have used tasers instead of a gun. But there was no uproar. The incident did not generate public anger. The officers were exonerated, and no apology was given to the Riley family. Consequently, the story never made national news.

However, just 14 hours later and 50 miles away another incident occurred, but this time instead of a human the casualty was a dog. And this made headlines. The dog’s owner, Craig Jones was eating lunch, having locked his pet Arfee in his van. He had rolled the windows part-way down so that the dog could enjoy the cool breeze. Unfortunately, when the two-year-old black Labrador mix started barking, a passerby called the cops. Officer Dave Kelly answered the call. Kelly later claimed that when he approached the van, Arfee (who was initially described as a vicious pit bull) lunged at him, though the van’s window was mostly rolled up. Kelly put a bullet in Arfee’s chest.

This shooting made the media go nuts. A headline in the New York Daily News read “Idaho Cop Shoots, Kills Adorable Black Lab Named Arfee After Mistaking Him For Aggressive Pit Bull.” A “Justice For Arfee” Facebook Page was soon created, and a shadowy organization called “Anonymous” posted several ominous videos on YouTube vaguely threatening the police department with retribution. Two months later, a police review board ruled that the shooting of the dog was unjustified and the police department issued an official apology to Jones.  He was also awarded $80,000 in damages for the loss of his pet.

This mismatch between public outrage pattern is both striking as well as worrying.

We might have let go of this incident as a stray coincidence, but there are studies that confirm such behavior. Numerous studies have concluded that an adult human’s death generates the least amount of emotional distress among the masses. The winner in evoking empathy is a human infant, while a puppy comes in a close second. An adult pet was not far behind, and surely ahead of an adult human being.

I am still perplexed as to how have we as a race reached such a stage. I have no answers.

Anyways we must not forget the bottom line that humans in most circumstances value animals over people. And this is truly worrying even if it is just “the paradox of the cats in our houses and cows on our plates.”

Author: Pradeep Banerjee