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Valuing Dogs More Than War Victims: Bridging the Empathy Gap

"If only we valued kids in Aleppo as much as we did our terriers!"

Would you do it to your dog? Using dogs to bridge the empathy gap

Often, when I’m discussing some aspect of nonhuman animal (animal) abuse I ask people, “Would you do it to your dog?” Across the board people are incredulous when I ask this question, and I simply explain to them that dogs aren’t more sentient than food animals such as cows, pigs, or chickens, laboratory animals such as mice and rats, or entertainment animals such as elephants or orcas.

I bring up these discussions to discuss the idea of using dogs to bridge the “empathy gap.” Using dogs in this way asks people to recognize that we often are extremely inconsistent in how we view and treat other nonhuman animals in comparison to how we view and treat our canine, feline, and numerous other household companions. We also view and treat our companions with much more compassion and empathy than we do some groups of humans. In a previous essay called "Labeling Non-Native Animals: The Psychology of Name Calling" I focused on the way in which humans form beliefs and base their behavior toward other humans and nonhumans based on whether individuals are viewed as members of "in-groups" or "out-groups."

Would you kill a dog for fun?

"Would you kill a dog for fun?" is another question I often ask. For example, many people engage in recreational and trophy hunting "for the fun of it," but they too often seem incredulous when I ask this question. Most answer by saying something like, "Of course not." In a letter to the editor for the New York Times I raised this question once again concerning the brutal massacre of tens of thousands of coyotes (and millions of other animals) by a government group called Wildlife Services that pretty much does whatever it wants in the arena of animal murder. I wrote:

Dan Flores’s excellent essay [Stop Killing Coyotes] raises numerous issues about the violent war on coyotes that’s been going on, incredibly unsuccessfully, for decades. Wildlife Services kills them by the tens of thousands annually, and others join sanctioned killing contests just for the fun of it.

Coyotes, like the dogs millions share their homes and hearts with, are intelligent and highly emotional beings. Having studied coyotes for more than four decades, I know them well, and it’s very clear that they’ve been more than able to adapt to an increasingly human-dominated world.

I often ask people, “Would you kill a dog for fun?” Coyotes are no less sentient than our companion dogs and don’t like being trapped, snared, shot from airplanes or poisoned. Dogs can bridge the empathy gap between animals we know well and those who are unjustifiably vilified.

For more on Mr. Flores' book Coyote America please see "Coyote America: The Evolution of Human-Animal Relationships."

"Do You Care More About a Dog Than a Refugee?"

"If only, I thought, we valued kids in Aleppo as much as we did our terriers!"

Along the lines of what I wrote above, on August 18, 2016 New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof published an essay called “Do You Care More About a Dog Than a Refugee?” (The original essay was titled "But What if My Dog Had Been a Syrian?") Mr. Kristof begins:

Last Thursday, our beloved family dog, Katie, died at the age of 12. She was a gentle giant who respectfully deferred even to any mite-size puppy with a prior claim to a bone. Katie might have won the Nobel Peace Prize if not for her weakness for squirrels. I mourned Katie’s passing on social media and received a torrent of touching condolences, easing my ache at the loss of a member of the family. Yet on the same day that Katie died, I published a column calling for greater international efforts to end Syria’s suffering and civil war, which has claimed perhaps 470,000 lives so far. That column led to a different torrent of comments, many laced with a harsh indifference: Why should we help them? These mingled on my Twitter feed: heartfelt sympathy for an American dog who expired of old age, and what felt to me like callousness toward millions of Syrian children facing starvation or bombing. If only, I thought, we valued kids in Aleppo as much as we did our terriers!

Mr. Kristof ends:

I wonder what would happen if Aleppo were full of golden retrievers, if we could see barrel bombs maiming helpless, innocent puppies. Would we still harden our hearts and ‘otherize’ the victims? Would we still say ‘it’s an Arab problem; let the Arabs solve it’? Yes, solutions in Syria are hard and uncertain. But I think even Katie in her gentle wisdom would have agreed that not only do all human lives have value, but also that a human’s life is worth every bit as much as a golden retriever’s.”

Comparing how dogs and "otherized" humans are viewed and treated

Clearly, Mr. Kristof was using the passing of his dog to attempt to bridge the empathy gap between how he and others viewed Katie's passing and how humans who are considered members of out-groups -- who are "otherized" -- are viewed and treated.

I was very surprised and even more pleased to see what Mr. Kristof wrote. I wanted to share his thoughts and the above questions with a wide readership because I believe we can learn a lot about how we view and treat humans with whom we don't feel very close in comparison with how we view and treat nonhumans with whom we form close, enduring, and reciprocal relationships. Why do we hold these inconsistencies and why do they persist?

Dogs can indeed bridge the empathy gap if we're open to this possibility. At the very least it's essential to ask difficult questions and come to an understanding of why we hold the attitudes we do and how we can use our feelings about companion animals and extend compassion and empathy to other nonhumans and humans who truly need all the help and they can get.

Note: In response to this essay, attorney Steven Wise wrote to me: Kristof was making a false analogy. We value our dogs more than the children of others far away. We also value our children more than dogs far away. The variable is not species, but proximity and relationship.

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce) will be published in early 2017.