This week in North Philly Notes, we repost portions of a recent article by Alison Nastasi from HopesandFears.com about the outcry over Cecil the Lion, including quotes from Temple University Press authors Leslie Irvine, author of If You Tame Me, and Clint Sanders, author of Understanding Dogs.
Cecil—the 13-year-old male Southwest African lion named after Cecil Rhodes, founder of Rhodesia (known as Zimbabwe since 1980)—was a fixture at Hwange National Park, the country’s largest game reserve and the park’s biggest tourist attraction. He was accustomed to having his picture taken and reportedly trusting of humans. Scientists at Oxford University studied Cecil for an ongoing project about conservation. Last month, Cecil was shot with an arrow and, it is believed, lured out of the protected zone of the sanctuary.
Forty hours later, he was killed with a rifle, skinned, and decapitated. His headless body was missing the GPS tracking collar that he had been fitted with by Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU). Walter Palmer, an American dentist and big-game hunter, paid over $50,000 to stalk and kill Cecil. The despised Minnesotan has since closed down his practice after becoming the target of widespread backlash from celebrities, activists and the public (trending on Twitter under #CecilTheLion).
But there’s another kind of backlash taking place over the killing, namely, expressing the troubling nature of such outspoken support over the death of a single animal, when mounting incidents of unarmed black men and women being brutalized and killed by police in the US, largely, with little to no recourse, don’t seem to inspire the same outpouring of mainstream attention and anger.
Hoping to gain some insights from sociological, behavioral, and ethical perspectives, we reached out to several experts whose professional focus included issues of human-animal relations, race, politics, and gender. We wanted to find out if people respond differently to images of animal versus human suffering—and, given the aforementioned cases and claims, why some people seem more moved by accounts of animal abuse and murder than those endured by fellow human beings.
Leslie Irvine, PhD
Professor, Gender, Qualitative and Interpretive Sociology, Department of Sociology, University of Colorado, Boulder
The short answer is that it depends on which animals and which people. The sympathy people feel depends on their perceived innocence of the victim. In a paper forthcoming in the journal Society & Animals, Arnold Arluke, Jack Levin, and I examine the assumption that people are more concerned about the suffering of animals than of people. Arnie and Jack conducted research on this at Northeastern University. They had 240 students read one of four hypothetical stories, allegedly from the Boston Globe. The accounts were the same, but the victims were either a puppy, an adult dog, a human infant, or a human adult. After reading the fictitious article, students rated the degree of sympathy they felt on a 15-point scale. They were most upset by the stories about the infant, followed by the puppy, then the adult dog, and, finally, the adult human.
Clinton R. Sanders, PhD
Professor Emeritus, Department of Sociology, University of Connecticut
It’s likely that dependence is the predominant issue surrounding the difference in people’s emotional response to animal pain and death as opposed to that of humans. Nonhuman animals typically are defined in western culture as far less “able” than humans. Of course, there’s a considerable continuum here since we routinely kill animals for food, sport, or convenience (overpopulations, danger, etc.). To the extent we see animals as “minded” or as viable social partners (i.e., “pets”), they are seen as worthy of intense emotional connection (Cecil was, in many ways, afforded this designation).
The difference between the typical emotional response to news of a child’s abuse or murder as opposed to violence committed against an adult is another example of the importance of dependence to people’s socially generated feelings of relative distress. When doing the interviews with “everyday” dog caretakers that formed part of the basis for Understanding Dogs, a number of those I talked to spoke of feeling more acute sorrow when their canine companions died than when close family members passed on.