Our Animal Instincts

Does living with animals really make us healthier? Why do we eat some animals and keep others as pets? This week on Hidden Brain, we talk with psychology professor Hal Herzog about the contradictions embedded in our relationships with animals.

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.


This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam.


VEDANTAM: Many of us share our homes with animals - furry, feathered or scaly.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hi Charles (ph). Oh, I haven't seen you in a while...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Was it a bad day? Yeah? You awake...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: They are definitely like my family members at this point.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Yeah. That's my righthand man. I got no kids, so that's my son, you know? He's my baby.

VEDANTAM: Yet, as much as we love our pets, our behavior toward animals can be paradoxical.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Don't you think it's kind of weird that we're eating our cat's meat? And we, you know, have strong beliefs in not eating meat at this point...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I think the more you love animals, the more you might consider being a vegetarian.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: The English Bulldog was made by science. You know what I'm saying? Like, I think lizards and reptiles belong with Mother Nature. I don't think English bulldog is a part of Mother Nature. So I'm a walking hypocrite, and I recognize that. And I'm OK with that.

VEDANTAM: This week on HIDDEN BRAIN, we explore the contradictions and quandaries of our relationships with animals.


VEDANTAM: When Hal Herzog's son, Adam, was young, he had a pet mouse named Willie. One day, Willie died, so Hal used this as a teaching moment.

HAL HERZOG: We thought it would be a good lesson for the kids, in terms of understanding death, to have a funeral for him. After all, you know, he was a pet. The kids really liked him. And they were very upset when he died. And so we had a funeral. We got a little cardboard box and made a little casket. We took him into the backyard. We buried him. And we actually had a little headstone for him. We got some rocks and made a little headstone for him.

VEDANTAM: A couple of days later, Hal's wife found some mouse droppings in the kitchen and asked him to do something about it.

HERZOG: Well, my wife's a neatnik. And the idea that we would be sharing our house with, you know, with little creatures scampering around that were mice was not something that she could live with. So she asked me to kill the mouse, and I did. I went out and I bought a mousetrap. I put a little dab of peanut butter on it and put it under the kitchen. And the next morning, I got up and the mouse was dead.

VEDANTAM: And, of course, you did what you always do with dead mice, which is you put it in a cardboard box and took it out of the back and gave it a funeral, right?

HERZOG: No. I threw it in the bushes.

VEDANTAM: Two dead mice, two very different responses.

HERZOG: They were in different psychological categories. One was a pet, which a lot of people - including us - sort of considered Willie a family member. He had a name. And the other was a pest. He was freeloading by, you know, stealing our cheese and...

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

HERZOG: ...You know generally being what mice do, that is to say, a pest. So, you know, there is a completely different psychological, you know, relationship between Willie our pet and the pest.

VEDANTAM: Hal Herzog is a professor of psychology at Western Carolina University. He's been studying human-animal interactions for more than 30 years. He writes about the contradictions in our attitudes toward mice and other creatures in his book "Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard To Think Straight About Animals." I asked him how the labels we place on animals - good mouse, bad mouse, pet or pest - change how we interact with them.

HERZOG: Certainly one of the deepest and most important reasons that we treat animals differently is related to the categories that we put them. That's absolutely true.

VEDANTAM: So here's a second story that also lays out a slightly related but different contradiction. Your family once also owned a pet snake. And a nasty rumor spread about what you were feeding the snake. What was the rumor? And what does that reveal, in some ways, about the relationship we have with animals?

HERZOG: I got a call one day from a friend of mine who's an animal rights activist. And she said that she had gotten a call from one of her friends saying that I was going to our local animal shelter and getting kittens and taking them home and feeding them to our boa constrictor, who was like Willie, a pet and had a name, Sam.

VEDANTAM: What does this to reveal about some of the contradictions we have about animals? You talk a little bit in the book about, you know, both sort of the abhorrence with which we receive this idea that anyone would dream of feeding kittens to snakes. But, of course, in your mind, this also produced something of a thought experiment and some questions about cats and snakes.

HERZOG: It did. And actually, for the next couple of days, there was something that kept nagging me about that. And I was thinking, like, OK. You know, what Sam ate - he was a carnivore, like cats. And what he ate was mice. And so I would go, basically, to the pet shop and buy mice to feed to the snake - live mice. And I would, you know, kill the mice and give them to the snake.

And I thought, well, wait a minute. There's cats being euthanized at the animal shelter that are unwanted. Wouldn't it be more ethical for me to actually go to the animal shelter and get the bodies of dead kittens as opposed to using - buying live mice? Wouldn't that be morally permissible? Wouldn't it be morally better to actually feed kittens to boa constrictors than to feed mice to boa constrictors?

VEDANTAM: And of course, then, that means you went out to the animal shelter and did what the rumor was saying that you were doing.

HERZOG: Of course I did not. We were - we had a pet cat at the time. We still have a pet cat. We live with cats. I love cats. I would never feed a cat to a boa constrictor. So this was a classic example of head versus heart. And I realized that moral consistency oftentimes leads us astray in our interactions with animals. And that really haunted me ever since. Like, how could I live in a world in which it was OK to feed kittens to boa constrictors?

And interesting, Shankar, the original title of my book was "Feeding Kittens To Boa Constrictors." But the editor and my agent immediately made me change it...

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

HERZOG: ...Because they said nobody would buy a book with that title.

VEDANTAM: It sounds like the start of a bad Coen brothers movie.

HERZOG: It does. And it snagged me a literary agent. But (laughter) they wouldn't - they wouldn't take the next step.


VEDANTAM: Tell me about another story that you describe in the book. This guy, Jim Thompson, he's a doctoral student you met. And he owned this very beautiful bird. And he started thinking about that bird. And then he did something unusual with this bird. Walk me through what he did.

HERZOG: Yeah. He was a graduate student. And he was a very logical, rational, rational person. And he had a pet bird - it was a cockatiel, as I recall - that he really loved. And his mother had given him a copy of an animal rights magazine - I think it was Animals\u2019 Agenda at the time. And he read the magazine. It changed his life. So he became an animal rights activist, hardcore - became a vegan, quit wearing leather, made his girlfriend start doing all that stuff as well.

And then one day, he looked at the bird, who lived in a cage. And he came to the conclusion - the intellectual conclusion that it was unethical to live with a bird in a cage. And so he took the bird outside and he freed it. And the bird flew out of the cage. And he said it was an amazing sight to see that bird take off. And then he told me - he looked at me, he said sheepishly, you know, I know she probably died. I know that I was doing it more for me than I was for the bird.

VEDANTAM: You know, it made me think about all the ways in which we sort of relate to animals in some ways as if they were sort of fellow creatures. In other words, if you kept a fellow human being in a cage, it would seem absolutely unjust, immoral and wrong. And releasing that person from the cage would seem like the only right thing to do. And in some ways, we extend that logic when we talk about the bird. That's what he was doing.

And as I was reading the story, it reminded me of another story you have in the book. This was a different story but, in some ways, it has the same subtext. Cookie was a 12-foot-long Nile crocodile at the Miami Serpentarium. A 6-year-old boy once fell into Cookie's enclosure. And the croc did what crocodiles do - he grabbed the child, pulled him underwater. What did the owner of the Serpentarium do next?

HERZOG: Well, the owner of the - immediately, the owner of the Serpentarium jumped into - he heard the people watching, you know, gasp in horror. And he knew something was going on. He jumped into the cage and tried to save the kid - little David - and failed. And that night, Haast woke up in the middle of the night - I'm assuming he didn't get much sleep. He had a revolver - a Luger - in his bedroom. He put the shells in it. And he went into Cookie's cage and he put nine bullets in his brain.

And by the way, he had had Cookie for many, many years. And Cookie was a favorite of his. It was an animal that he loved in a way that probably only herpetologists - somebody like me, you know, who studies reptiles and likes them, you know, can understand. I argue that, in some ways, it's the operation of a phenomenon that cognitive psychologists called heuristics. A heuristic is sort of a mental shortcut and it sometimes leads to good, you know, logical, correct answers, but sometimes it doesn't. And in this case, it seems to be the operation of a type of heuristic called the moral heuristic. And the moral heuristic is revenge.

And at one point, The New York Times actually wrote an editorial about that event. And the editorial writer, I think, got it right. And the editorial writer wrote, killing Cookie made no sense intellectually, but it felt right emotionally.

VEDANTAM: And the reason it didn't make sense intellectually, of course, is the idea that a crocodile would do what a crocodile does is hardly surprising.

HERZOG: That's what crocodiles do. His brain is smaller than a walnut. He is a creature, largely, of instinct, particularly when it comes to food. And he was, you know, doing what crocodiles do. He was not a moral agent, you know, which I would argue is one of the biggest differences between humans and other species. We are moral agents.

VEDANTAM: So the interesting thing is that Haast, the owner, in some ways related to Cookie as if Cookie was a person, that Cookie was a moral agent. And in some ways, that's a variation of what Jim Thompson was doing with the bird - wasn't it? - which is, you're assuming that the animal has agency and behaves or thinks or has human-like qualities and that you are therefore obliged or required to treat this other creature as if, in some ways, it had human-like qualities.

HERZOG: I'm sure that if you interviewed Haast, he, you know, clearly would know the difference, at an intellectual level, between a crocodile and a person. But you're quite right. He's basically treated them the same way that we would a person.

This similarly played out in a bizarre incident that happened in Tennessee, where an elephant named Mary killed its groom while in a circus parade in 1916. And they hung the elephant to death. And, you know, to me that was, you know, the ultimate example of where we've anthropomorphized animals - that we give it capital punishment in a sense for something that it was clearly not morally culpable.

VEDANTAM: So people listening to these stories would say, wow, those are really, you know, crazy stories, but as you point out in the book, this tendency we have to anthropomorphize animals is actually really ubiquitous. You draw a contrast between the way we relate to the giant panda and the giant salamander. Tell me what the giant salamander is, what it looks like, and how our attitudes toward these different animals are shaped by the ways in some ways that we anthropomorphize them.

HERZOG: Yeah, the - so the animals, in some way, are similar, the giant panda and the giant Chinese salamander, in that they're both endangered and they both live in China and they're both really special, although in quite different ways. The giant Chinese salamander is basically a 6-foot-long bag of brown slime with beady eyes. (Laughter) And, you know, to me, they're like - they're striking. I wouldn't say that they're beautiful, but they're stunning just in their size and they're - I don't know. (Laughter) To me, they're charismatic, but I don't think most people would agree with that. But you're not going to see the World Wildlife Fund putting a picture of the giant Chinese salamander on their logo. Instead, they use the panda. And the panda, you know, in some ways, looks a little bit like a human.

But it's basically a faker in the sense that it has these giant circles around its eyes, which ethologists call baby releasers. So we look at that panda and it basically logs on to that - jams into that maternal instinct that we have when we see creatures with big eyes and it impose on them that in some ways it reminds us of a human infant. So, for example, researchers have shown that one of the biggest predictors of whether or not people will give money to save animals is the size of the animal's eyes. And pandas certainly have it when it comes to eye size.


VEDANTAM: When we come back, do our pets actually improve our lives?

HERZOG: Pet owners were better off in terms of their psychological and physical health than non-pet owners. But as they pointed out, so are people with Mercedes-Benzes.

VEDANTAM: Stay with us.

When we think about pets in the United States, we often picture cats, dogs, maybe a hamster. Hal Herzog says our relationship with animals, especially those we consider pets, is largely dictated by our communities and culture. So, for example, I've got a friend that's an anthropologist who was born and raised in Kenya. And in the village where he was raised, they kept dogs. The dogs were allowed to roam freely in the village. They really liked dogs that we would consider mean dogs because they scared away animals, and they scared away strangers.

HERZOG: But they weren't considered pets. In fact, in his language, they don't even have a word for pet. And I went to ask him. I said, Nyaga, would you, like, you know, let a dog in your house when you were living in Africa? And he said, no. I said, would you let a dog eat at the table, you know, and, you know, feed him table scraps? He said, no. I said, Nyaga, would you let a dog sleep in your bed? And the look at the horror on his face, it was like if I said, hey, I've got this really cool rat I just caught down at the Hudson River. You want to sleep with it tonight?


HERZOG: And, in fact, I recently got some new data on this. So it turns out that in the United States, we have amongst the highest rate of dog ownership in the world. And there are enormous differences between countries in dog ownership. So there's about 250 dogs per thousand people in the United States. And in Egypt, there's about five dogs per thousand people. So these cultural variations in what people - you know, what's acceptable as a pet and what's not is just huge.


VEDANTAM: I want to spend a moment talking about the relationships that we have with pets in North America. I know that people spend a lot of money on pets, but as I read your book, I was just shocked at how high that number is. How much do we spend on our pets every year, Hal?

HERZOG: It's pushing about $80 billion a year right now. It's an enormous amount of money.

VEDANTAM: I mean, that's a fleet of aircraft carriers.

HERZOG: Yeah. Yeah, it is. And if you even adjusted for inflation, the amount of money that we spent on pets each year in the United States has more than doubled in the last 30 years per capita.


HERZOG: The real increase in spending has been at the high end. Gourmet pet food for dogs - I mean, you can buy, you know, food that you would eat. In fact, you know, I tease my wife and I say, what we're going to do is, like, when we get ready for the giant decline is we're going to stock up on dog food and - you know, when the hurricane (ph) comes.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

HERZOG: But it's also things like, you know, pet day cares, pet spas. There's a hotel that has a zen room where you can get your pets a massage. And I don't know what else pets do in a zen room. We're talking about dog parks. We're talking about jeweled collars. We're talking about pet fashion weeks. We're talking about all these things. And the pet food industry, you know, calls this the humanization of pets. And it really has taken off in the last 30 years. Another factor is advertising and publicity by the pet products industry that push the idea that pets are good for people, that if you get a pet, you will be a happier and healthier person.

VEDANTAM: Is this actually true, that owning a pet is good for your health and your longevity?

HERZOG: We have overwhelming evidence now that for a lot of people, you know, interacting with their pet does have short-term effects on their physiology, lowers their stress, makes them feel better. The question you ask, however, was different. That was are pets really good for our health and make us live longer? And here my answer is that we don't have particularly good evidence for the long-term impact of pets on human health. I have a stack of reprints in my office, which people have found that, you know, people with pets, you know, they sleep better, that they go to the doctor less, that they have better well-being, that they're less lonely, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. But I have another stack of reprints in my office that says just the opposite, that people with pets are more lonely, that they're more likely to go to the doctor, that they're more likely to drink a lot, that they're more likely to have ulcers. But you never hear about those studies, you know, in the news. They don't make the news.

There's very little evidence that pets make people live longer. And one of the problems we have is which direction the causal arrow points. For example, a recent study by the RAND Corporation found that pet owners, in fact, were better off in terms of their psychological and physical health than non-pet owners. But as they pointed out, so are people with Mercedes-Benzes. People with pets tend to be wealthier. They tend to be younger. They tend to live in nicer places. In other words, the socioeconomic factors may be that it's not that pets are making people happier and healthier. It's that happier, healthier people are more likely to have pets. We have very little data to test those two different hypotheses.

VEDANTAM: You present some really striking studies in the book, which talk in some ways of the downside of having pets. You say that some 85,000 Americans are injured each year according to the CDC because they trip over their pets or otherwise are injured by them. And I understand your neighbor Anne (ph) is one of those victims.

HERZOG: My neighbor Anne is one of those victims. She's a classic case. She was walking her dog and the leash wrapped around her leg, and she fell over and she broke her collarbone. I recently went on Facebook, and I put a call out - I said if any of you have ever been injured by, you know, a pet by walking your dog, let's say, you know, please write me a note. And I could not believe the response - 80 people responded to me. Many of them were professionals in the field. Some of them even sent me their X-rays, which I - and I was - and some of these incidents were not trivial. Some of these incidents were life-changing. So there are downsides to pet ownership.


VEDANTAM: So there's a new frontier in pet ownership now, and I want to play you a clip. This is from the company Sony, and they presented this account of a dog at a tech conference.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Let's start with design. First, the obvious - Aibo is adorable. He wags his tail, wiggles his ears, blinks his eyes and even does that doggy smile - you know that smile that dogs do when you scratch them just right and they kind of tilt their head and half close their eyes and they open their mouth a little and smile. Yeah, that smile.

VEDANTAM: So, of course, Hal, Aibo isn't a real dog. Aibo is a robot, and it really looks like humans are completely indiscriminate when it comes to who we will consider and what we will consider to be pets.

HERZOG: Yeah. The thing about Aibo - Aibo's got an interesting history. Sony originally developed Aibo and Aibo's a robotic dog, and it does all kind of things. It'll fetch. It'll signal you its emotions. It'll respond when you call its name. The problem with Aibo is that it's metal and shiny, so it doesn't have fur. So while Aibo had some real - it was expensive. It originally cost about 2,000 bucks. It didn't catch on initially. But Aibo was recently resurrected by Sony, and I've looked at the new promotional videos of Aibo, and I'm ready - I'm about ready to get one. It looks pretty good. Oh, and there have been studies where they've taken Aibo and some other types of robotic pets into things like nursing homes and - to see if they had the same impact on, you know, people living in nursing homes in terms of morale and well-being as they do a real dog.


HERZOG: And the results have been sort of mixed, but in some of the cases, Aibo has actually done better in some cases than an actual animal.

VEDANTAM: And some of this, I'm guessing, might have to do with the fact that Aibo doesn't have some of the downsides that owning a real dog might have. Aibo is not going to bark uncontrollably at night or bark at your friends when they come over for a party. I mean, dogs and cats and pets can sometimes induce stress within families and emotional and psychological problems within households.

HERZOG: Absolutely, they can. The other thing that Aibo doesn't do is raise the pesky ethical questions that come with pet ownership. You don't have to worry about the ethics of depriving Aibo of a sex life by castrating him. You don't have to worry about the ethics of leaving Aibo alone for long periods of time while you're at your office during the day. You don't have to take Aibo for a walk three times a day and then pick up poop as you walk it down the road. So I think Aibo's got some real advantages.

VEDANTAM: So besides the many animals that you own that we've already talked about, you also own a cat whose name is Tilly. And you have what other cat owners might think is a rather idiosyncratic way of expressing your affection for Tilly. In the book you write, don't feel bad, Tilly. I love you even if you are a socially constructed parasite. Really, Hal?

HERZOG: (Laughter) Yeah. The question is is she a parasite? And this is the view that pets are basically a form of evolutionarily what's called nest parasitism, which we see in birds. So, for example, let's take the cowbird. What a cowbird does is it lays its eggs in another bird's nest - let's say a wren's nest - and it then flies away and leaves its eggs for this wren to hatch. The wren then sits on the egg until it hatches and so that the wren winds up raising the bird up - the baby of another species. And that's what - that's how we got Tilly. What happened is, you know, this little kitten showed up one day on our doorstep. I was away. I came home and my wife had this strange grin on her face. And I thought, you know, that - you know, I've never quite seen that look. What it is that? She had this grin. And she says, come here, come here, come here. And she shows me this lovely little cat.


HERZOG: And we were hooked. We were hooked. So what did we do? We've been raising Tilly ever since. You know, we've basically been conned by Tilly's mom to take care of her nestling, you know? We don't share any genes with Tilly, but yet the average pet owner over the life of the pet will invest roughly $10,000 in their pet. So we have $10,000 worth of nest parasite living with us. And we get our money's worth out of her.

VEDANTAM: Or you think you get your money's worth because, of course, it's the parasite that's having the last laugh.

HERZOG: Yeah (laughter) absolutely.


VEDANTAM: When we come back - how the contradictions in the ways we think about animals lead to paradoxes in how we treat them.

Hal Herzog is a professor of psychology at Western Carolina University. He's the author of the book "Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard To Think Straight About Animals." Hal, the contradictions in the way we think about animals lead to paradoxes and moral dilemmas in how we treat them. Let's look at the very, very simplest case. Millions of Americans like yourself own a cat. They care for their pet. They say they love animals. But you simultaneously say that loving your cat means subjecting other animals to suffering. How so?

HERZOG: My cat's a serial killer. She is an indoor-outdoor cat. And so when she wants to go outside, I let her outside. And what she does some of the time is kill small animals, sometimes birds, more often it's small mice, voles, creatures like that. I am actually more conflicted by being a cat owner than I am over any other aspect of my relationships with animals.

VEDANTAM: And, of course, the cat is doing what comes naturally to the cat. The cat is a predator. You can't expect the cat to be behaving any different. But the fact that millions of Americans own cats mean that in some ways they're at least indirectly sanctioning this mass murder of, for example, you know, songbirds.

HERZOG: Yeah, and mass murder it is. Depending on the statistics, somewhere between 1 billion and 5 billion birds each year are killed by our pet cats. Furthermore, cats are obligate carnivores. They have to eat meat. And so I've got lots of friends that are vegetarians and vegans, and they're morally opposed to eating meat, but yet they keep cats and they have to buy animal flesh to keep their cats happy and healthy. It's a big moral problem for some people.

VEDANTAM: You ran sort of the calculations on this, and you described them in the book. Mathematically, a cat consumes about two ounces of meat a day. That's about 50 pounds of meat a year. By contrast, snakes only consume maybe 5 pounds of meat a year, so the impact of having a cat - the moral impact, if you will - is 10 times greater than the moral impact of owning a snake. And yet, of course, most animal lovers will be horrified if you were to suggest replacing kittens with snakes or maybe even, as we discussed, feeding kittens to boa constrictors.

HERZOG: Yeah. I actually developed this scale one time. I was interested in this issue, and I developed the scale, which I called the feeding kittens to boa constrictor scale. I was actually trying to make fun of psychological scales, but it turned out to produce some very interesting things. So, for example, most of my students that I gave this scale to said that it was OK to feed mice to boa constrictors, but it was not OK to feed mice to cats, which was interesting enough. And when I asked them, well, why - you know, why is it OK to feed mice to a boa constrictor but not a cat, one of my students put it perfectly. She said, if my cat ate mice, she wouldn't be like me. And that, to me, gets at this whole thing about what we project onto the animals that we lived with. You know, if my cats ate mice, she wouldn't be like me. Well, she's not like you, girl, you know?

VEDANTAM: But in some ways, bringing sort of cat food home just like you bring your own groceries home allows that student, in some ways, to preserve that illusion, doesn't it?

HERZOG: Absolutely. She's preserving the illusion. She's preserving the illusion. Now, if I were a better person, perhaps I would keep my cat indoors, which is a lot - what a lot of my friends tell me is I should make her an indoor cat. Well, I resist doing that and my reasoning is probably equally fallacious - is that, if I were a cat, I would rather be an indoor-outdoor cat than a cat that lives in a big cage and spends its day looking outside through the window at the birds floating around.

Now, I know that by letting my cat go outdoors, I subject her to the tough things in the wild. In other words, she could get eaten by a coyote. She can't get hit by a car because we live on a road that doesn't have any cars go down it. But the life of an indoor-outdoor cat tends to be shorter, even though she's had a long and good life. But I can't completely justify doing that because of the toll she takes on the small animal life. But I live with it.

VEDANTAM: So the more we think of animals as sort of members of our family, the more we think of them as being like us, in some ways, this raises a profound moral paradox - does it not? - which is that, if we actually think of these animals as being like us, how in the world can we, you know, in any good conscience, confine them to our homes, confine them to cages, treat them as if they were our captives to do with as we please?

HERZOG: Well, I think that's a great point. It's something that I've been thinking about a lot lately. And I've really quite seriously been thinking about, is it ethical to keep animals as pets? If we really think of them as autonomous beings, what right do we have to take away all their autonomy by controlling every aspect of their life? - what they eat, where they go, when they go. And increasing, we're taking control of their genes, which created its own problems.

And so I'm thinking, increasingly, that - I'm wondering about the ethics of keeping animals as pets. To me, the logic of pet keeping is not that different than the logic of meat eating. I eat meat. And I know the arguments against it are good and they're better than my argument for eating meat, which is, basically, I like the way it tastes. Well, I feel the same way about my cat.

I love my cat, but she carries with her a moral burden. And it's my moral burden. It's not her moral burden. I'm the moral agent. I'm the adult in the room. And I'm the one that has to deal with thinking about this stuff. Although, most people conveniently repress it and don't think about it.


VEDANTAM: I'm wondering, Hal, in some ways - as you're pointing out - these contradictions are unresolvable. And given the contradictions that you've laid out and the paradoxes of being a pet owner, some of the moral costs that come with being a pet owner, if your current animals - you were to lose them, if they were to die, would you get replacements for them today?

HERZOG: Boy, that's a great question. That is such a tough question. I've thought about it. I definitely would not get a dog. I miss having a dog, actually. My wife and I are both dog people. But we haven't had a dog for 10 years and it's because our lifestyle doesn't lend itself - I don't think a dog would be happy living in our house because we're away too much during the day. I can't stand the idea of leaving them in a kennel. Our cat's happy to live by herself.

And I think the answer is yes. I think the answer is that I would get another cat.

VEDANTAM: The moral dilemmas of pet ownership pale in comparison to the moral dilemmas posed by our use of animals in sport and as food. Hal explores some of the deepest contradictions we have toward animals by looking at the sport of cockfighting.

HERZOG: First of all, cockfighting is more illegal now than it was when I was doing that work, but it's just as brutal now. So basically, in a cockfight, what - you have two chickens and you have two handlers and you have a referee and a pit, which is roughly 15 feet in diameter.

The referee says pit them. The handlers let them go. And the two roosters try and kill each other. One rooster, almost invariably, dies because they have gaffs, which are basically knives attached to their legs. And it's basically about gambling. There's money changing hands. And so I entered this clandestine world and lived in that clandestine world for a couple of years.

VEDANTAM: Now, anyone who hears what you've just described would say, all right, this is morally unconscionable. We cannot allow this to happen. We need to ban this sport. And it has been banned in all parts of the country and many parts of the world. But tell me a little bit more about what happens when you look more closely at the life of one of these roosters that's raised for cockfighting. And you contrast this, in some ways, with the life of your average broiler chicken.

HERZOG: Yeah. Well, first I want to say that I do not justify cockfighting. Everything you said about it is correct. It is brutal. It is unjustified. It's now banned throughout the United States. And it should be banned throughout the United States. I'm not trying to justify to - you know, for me, as I started studying cockfighters and how they thought, I became really interested in their moral worlds.

And I also began to ask myself some difficult questions. And one of the difficult questions was, if I were a chicken - if I come back in the next world as a chicken, would I rather be an east Tennessee gamecock or would I rather be a McNugget; in other words, a chicken raised in a broiler house to become a McNugget. And to me, there is no doubt in my mind I would much rather be a gamecock than a chicken destined to be served at McDonald's.

VEDANTAM: Can you describe to me how you reached that conclusion? What is the life of that gamecock? And what is the life of that chicken that ends up as a McNugget?

HERZOG: OK. First, let's take a gamecock. They live long lives. And they live lives that are generally - compared to a broiler chicken - pretty darn amazing. They live, on average, two years. They're not usually fought until they're two years old. For a chunk of their life, they live in free range or they have way more room than a broiler chicken.

They're fed incredibly well - a varied diet. They get plenty of exercise. If they win a couple fights, they will use them as a stud rooster. And what they'll do is they'll spend their life chasing the hens around. Not a bad deal.


HERZOG: On the other hand, the life of a broiler chicken is absolutely horrendous. Their life only lasts between six and seven weeks. They're basically meat machines, which means that they put on weight so fast that their legs can't really hold up their bodies. And so they have chronic leg pain, who's been called the world's largest animal welfare problem.

They're jammed into giant broiler houses with 30,000 chicks in a broiler house, where they'll never see the sun. They'll never get to play on the grass. They'll never get to peck at bugs. Their lungs will be burned with ammonia. It's an absolutely horrendous existence. And they will die a pretty lousy death. They'll be crammed into a series of cages. They'll be hauled, for miles, in an open truck, jammed into small little cages with their feathers flying down the interstate, where they will be hung upside down by their legs, dipped into an electrified water bath to stun them. And then they'll go through a carotid artery set of blades that will, hopefully, kill them quickly - although, oftentimes, it does not.

So the life of a (laughter) the life of a gamecock, oddly, is vastly better than the life of the 9 billion chickens that Americans eat each year.

VEDANTAM: I mean, that is a billion with a B.


VEDANTAM: You write in the book, while Americans will sleep easy at night knowing cockfighting is banned in all 50 states, 35 million chickens will be stuffed into wire crates on their way to processing plants tomorrow. That makes you...

HERZOG: Yeah. That's in one day.

VEDANTAM: That makes you think, doesn't it?

HERZOG: Yeah. Absolutely does. When I began doing my research on the comparative cruelty of cockfighting (laughter) versus McNuggets, I was stunned. I mean, I just - I was absolutely stunned. And I realized, you know, cockfighting should be illegal, but the casual chicken eater is committing a bigger sin in their own way than is the rooster fighter. And by the way, rooster fighters love their animals. That was one of the things I had a hard time wrapping my head around. It was like, these guys really love chickens.

VEDANTAM: The comedian Chris Rock once went on David Letterman and talked about some of the contradictions in the way we think about animals. He contrasted the football player Michael Vick, who went to prison for promoting dogfighting, with the former governor of Alaska and hunting enthusiast Sarah Palin.


CHRIS ROCK: And she's shooting mooses. And she got the moose.


ROCK: Holding a dead, bloody moose.


ROCK: And Michael Vick's like, why am I in jail?


ROCK: What the hell? But you let a white lady shoot a moose.



ROCK: Black man want to kill a dog, that's a crime.


VEDANTAM: It does sound like a double standard, Hal.

HERZOG: Yeah, it does sound like a double standard. We see the same thing in lots of areas of human-animal interactions. So for example, take cockfighting - cockfighting is a sport of lower-socioeconomic-status whites and Hispanics. And on the other hand, compare that with the sport of kings, horseracing.

Horseracing is finally coming under the gun. In the last couple months, as you probably know, I think almost 30 animals were killed at the Santa Anita racetrack in California. And this has been going on for years and years and years. A number of thoroughbred horses that die, numbers in the thousands and thousands each year. But yet, very few people get bent out of shape about horseracing compared to cockfighting.

VEDANTAM: So it is a class thing in some ways, isn't it?

HERZOG: Very much so. Very much so. It's a class thing.

VEDANTAM: We started this conversation, Hal, by talking about some stories and paradoxes and contradictions from your own life, and I want to end the conversation in the same way. When you were in grad school, you were once asked to put a number of different creatures into boiling water. Why were you asked to do this? And walk me through what happened.

HERZOG: Yeah. I was working in a chemical ecology lab. And we were interested in the chemical perceptions of - in this case it was reptiles snakes - baby snakes. And we basically were interested in whether or not these animals were born with an instinctive preference for certain types of foods. And, of course, they eat live animals. So in this case, there was another researcher in Utah that was interested in doing similar research for his dissertation. And he sent our lab, basically, a menagerie. It came in a big box, which basically said, this side up. Live animals.

And the box contained an array of animals. It contained worms, crickets. It contained some scorpions. It contained a lizard. It contained another snake. It contained - and then a mouse. And so I was the lowest ranking member of the lab. So they assigned me to basically convert these animals to a solution that could be dabbed on a swab and exposed to these snakes. And so the procedure involves dropping these animals into water that was not quite boiling. And I thought, OK, I'll do it.

And I had dropped the first one in that I think was a cricket. And it just died instantly. And then I did the Scorpion, which was a bigger animal. And it didn't die so quickly.


HERZOG: And then I had to do the, as I recall, it was a lizard. And, you know, I like lizards. I like reptiles. And it was not good. You know, it took much longer time for the lizard to die in the water. And I was getting upset. And then I was working my way up the phylogenetic scale. And then there was the mouse. It was a cute little mouse. It wasn't a lab mouse. It was one of these cute little woodland mice. And I took a look at the mouse and as I recall, I actually picked it up, was getting ready to drop it in the water and I just couldn't do it. And I just put the mouse back in its cage. And I went and told the lab manager, I can't do this. Somebody else is going to have to do it.

That just haunted me for a very long time. And it really was the event that got me on this journey that I've been on for more than 30 years now about trying to understand why it was so easy to do the cricket and harder to do the lizard and I couldn't do the mouse. And, you know, I've never come to grips with it, but I've been chasing that down. It really is the thing that got me thinking about the psychology of human-animal interactions and why we treat some animals different than other.

VEDANTAM: So one way that people justify eating meat and treating animals the way they do is that they believe that there's a status hierarchy between animals and it's along the lines of what happened in your lab. So worms are lower on the scale than scorpions. Scorpions are lower on the scale than mice. You once watched the Steven Spielberg movie "E.T." with your daughter. And you came up with a thought experiment that probably ruined the movie for her.

HERZOG: (Laughter) Actually, it was my twin daughters, they were both there. And probably most listeners are aware of what happens at the end of the movie. So E.T. and Elliott are running around California. They're buddies for, you know, the previous two hours. And at the end, E.T.'s mom comes back to get him in the flying saucer. And E.T., with that great big head and big eyes, looks at Elliott and he says - he croaks, he goes...


PAT WELSH: (As E.T.) Come.

HERZOG: You know, like, you know, come with me. We'll go back to Zork and we'll have a great time, you know. And Elliott says, no. I can't do it. I'm going to stay here. And E.T. takes off, you know and goes back to Zork and it's all good. And (laughter) my daughters - I don't know what I was thinking. I said, hey, girls, what if E.T. wanted Elliott to go back to Zork with him? And so he grabs Elliott...


HERZOG: ...And he drags him screaming into the flying saucer because they want to use Elliott in a research experiment. They want to use him in an experiment because there's like this AIDS-like virus invading the people of Zork. And the Zorkians are much smarter than Americans. They're much smarter than Elliott. Would it be OK for E.T. to kidnap Elliott and take him and use him in biomedical research experiment? And my kids, they're horrified. No, dad. No. No. And I thought the same thing. No, that would not be a good idea.

But on the other hand, what I realized was that our use of animals in biomedical research is based on the same premise. You know, we're smarter than other creatures. We're way smarter than mice. We're way smarter than dogs. We're somewhat smarter than chimpanzees in our own ways. And that's our justification for using animals in biomedical research. And I was forced to the conclusion that, look; if we're going to use animals in research, we got to let E.T. take Elliott back to Zork and use him in a cage.

Obviously, it's the same sort of thought experiment that I did when I concluded we ought to feed kittens to boa constrictors, you know? But I still can't wrap my head around that. My heart's telling me one thing, even though logic is telling me something else. And that's the gist of a lot of our inconsistencies with our interactions with animals.


VEDANTAM: Hal Herzog is a professor of psychology at Western Carolina University. He is the author of the book "Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard To Think Straight About Animals." Hal, thanks for joining me today on HIDDEN BRAIN.

HERZOG: Oh, thanks for having me. I really enjoyed it.

VEDANTAM: To learn more about Hal and his research, check out his blog, Animals And Us, from Psychology Today. This week's show was produced by Thomas Lu. It was edited by Tara Boyle and Rhaina Cohen. Our team includes Parth Shah, Laura Kwerel and Jenny Schmidt. Our unsung hero this week is Kimberly Sullivan (ph). She works in our legal department and helped us last week with drafting some paperwork for an upcoming show.

Legal work is often not the stuff of TV courtroom dramas. Lawyers often labor in the dark, and Kimberly mentioned how sad it was that people regularly skip over carefully crafted legal language because they think it's all legalese. Well, Kimberly, we read and appreciated every word you wrote.

For more HIDDEN BRAIN, you can find us on Facebook and Twitter. If you liked today's show, please remember to share it with one friend. We're always looking for new people to discover HIDDEN BRAIN.

One last thing before we go - have you ever been in a situation where you did something you never thought you'd do? Maybe you acted out when you were in the thrall of anger, hunger or sexual attraction. We're looking for stories about situations where what people think they do turns out to be very different from what they actually do. If you'd like to share a time when this happened to you, please record your story on your phone and email it to us at [email protected] Include your full name and phone number and use the subject line, emotions. Again, that's [email protected] I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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