An Interview with Prof. Hal Herzog

Hal Herzog on our complicated relationship with animals – and what it says about being human.

Interview with Hal Herzog, pictured here with Snakey, about our complicated relationship with animals

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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Prof. Hal Herzog’s fascinating book, Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard to Think Straight About Animals was the Companion Animal Psychology Book Club choice for June 2018. I was thrilled to interview him about the book – and book club members asked some questions too. A second edition of the book is out now!

Zazie: Many people have said the book is fascinating, and some have said it’s disturbing as well.

Hal: Oh good! Well that’s what I was going for!

Zazie: I think it’s because of what you refer to as “flagrant moral incoherence” when it comes to animals. Why is our relationship with animals so complicated?

Hal: That’s the whole theme of the book really. There’s a couple of answers to that. One is that when it comes to thorny moral issues, most of them are complicated. One of the reasons why I study human-animal relationships is I think they offer a window into how we think about ethical issues generally. So I think the same principles apply. The same complications, quandaries, and paradoxes, occur in our relationships with other people as well. So one reason it’s hard to think straight about animals, one reason it’s hard to think about animals ethically, is it’s hard to think straight about many things when it comes to ethics.

The other is that you have a lot of variables affecting how we think about animals. One is you have this conflict between logic and intuition, you have the fact that the way we think about animals is determined both by biological instincts and also our ability to think rationally, and other factors such as the words we use, that is language. And what cognitive psychologists call mental heuristics, which are quick and dirty rules of thumb which don’t always lead to truth, which sometimes lead to erroneous judgments.

The cover of the book Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat by Hal Herzog

Zazie: I think that’s why it’s such an interesting book, is that there are these inconsistencies. The next question is from book club member Sarah McLaren and this question relates to the section about cruelty to animals in childhood, because we hear a lot about the supposed link between cruelty to animals in childhood and later criminal behaviour, but your book includes examples from completely normal people, and I think a lot of people found that quite hard to read about. So the question is, I wonder if there was ever any correlation between the action of those children who were cruel to animals and the actions of their parents? Were they children who had harsher discipline or a family without animals?

Hal: I don’t know the answer to that. I didn’t ask them about that specifically so I don’t really have a good answer to that one. My guess is probably we saw the same sorts of variation in their parents as you do in most other people. That’s to say, some of them were probably exposed to cruelty when they grew up and some of them probably were not, probably in about the same ratio as other people. The other thing that I think is interesting is what we consider cruelty, for example oftentimes people forget that hunting is a form of animal abuse. I remember when Obama was President he declared October National Hunting and Fishing Month. And so we have these forms of institutionalized cruelty. Not only did he say it was National Hunting and Fishing Month, he said take your kids outdoors for hunting and fishing. And we don’t think of that as sort of institutionalized cruelty. My own view is that probably the vast majority of people that are engaged in hunting and fishing are not wantonly cruel in other aspects of their lives. They compartmentalize that. I don’t think there’s any way around the fact that hunting and fishing are about killing and hurting animals.

Zazie: Interesting, thank you. This question is from veterinarian Dr. Carol Haak. She says, in the process of doing research for the book, did you find your position of feelings on any particular issue change? Or did you remain mostly in the troubled middle?

Hal: I remained mostly on the troubled middle. I’m a little bit different than a lot of other researchers, probably most researchers in the field, in that a lot of them are drawn to the field because their lives are tied up with animals and they’re animal-lovers. I’m an animal lover too, but I’m not an animal protectionist historically. I’ve got a PhD in Animal Behaviour and I’ve always been fascinated by animals, but I was really drawn to the field not because of my love of animals, it was because I saw this way of looking at some very complicated ways of human psychology. Interestingly, the thing that I changed my mind about most in writing the book wasn’t about ethical issues, it was about the role of evolution and culture in human nature.

Zazie: Oh wow.

Hal: Yeah, I really made a major change in that while I was writing the book. For many, many, years I’ve considered myself an evolutionary psychologist and I still do, but I really strongly believed that most of our behaviour was determined by biological factors that shaped the minds of our ancestors. And I no longer believe that. And the reason why I no longer believe that, the real key to changing my mind on that, is I studied how people choose breeds of dogs for pets. And what I realized is that the role of culture was really much more important than I had realized. That came up in a couple of areas. One was popular culture change, which was the dog breed study. I think if I had to write it over again I would change one thing, and that was I did not realize the importance of culture in how much meat we eat. The degree to which we eat meat, I was thinking everybody’s like Americans and everywhere in the world people are eating a couple hundred pounds of meat per capita per year. And that’s just not true. There are places where people eat 10 pounds of meat per year per capita. In most places in Europe, people eat maybe 150 or less pounds of meat per year. Really the United States is an outlier when it comes to meat consumption. So my argument that humans are natural meat eaters, I don’t believe that. On the other hand, I believe that culture plays an enormous role in the form and frequency that meat eating takes.

"I wanted to get at this issue of how you wake up in the morning and get through the day trying to be a good person in a world which is incredibly morally complicated."

Zazie: That’s really interesting. I wanted to ask you a related question because you write a bit about lapsed vegetarians in the book, and I’m a lapsed vegetarian but I also had a mostly-vegetarian upbringing. So I wanted to ask you about the role of culture in influencing whether or not people eat meat or become vegetarian. Why do you think there are there so many lapsed vegetarians?

Hal: I think that’s really a great question. One is that a lot of vegetarians aren’t really serious about it. So it might be when you look at those percentages – I’ve written a blog about that – it looks like about 85% of vegetarians and about 75% of vegans go back to eating meat. In some cases because they weren’t really serious vegetarians to begin with, they might have done it for a little while, a couple of weeks and then they stop. But more interesting were people that were vegetarians for many years. For example, my daughter was a vegetarian for 20 years. In her case she went back to eating meat for health reasons. And I’ve done some studies and other people have done some studies as well, and there’s not one reason why people go back to eating meat. There are several reasons. One is health, if you feel like your health is going down. Another is social pressure. Less common is that they miss the taste of meat. What we found was very few of the ones that we talked to had changed their ethical stance toward meat. So it wasn’t like they suddenly opened their eyes and said ‘oh, my belief that we shouldn’t eat animals because they’re sentient creatures, that view was wrong’. Hardly anybody felt that way. So they managed to start eating meat but yet still basically keep their moral stance with animals intact.

Zazie: You referred already to your work on the popularity of dog breeds. This question is from book club member Patience Fisher.  She says, I liked how you used the baby names and fashion to illustrate the rise and fall of trends, including choosing dog breeds. I have read that in fashion, there are a few trend-setters that can jump-start this process, which is why the fashion industry gifts their items to celebrities. But it's not just them -- there are also the popular kids and other more local trend setters. I think the same with the dogs – you’re more apt to get a breed you've actually met, especially if it was owned by someone we admire, like a trainer.

Hal: I expect that’s true. I’m almost certain that would be true because from what we know about cultural change, the first part of the question was exactly right, there are influencers definitely. So for example when Paris Hilton gets a Chihuahua, it makes it more likely that other people are going to get Chihuahuas. One of the biggest trends that I see with dogs is the fact that more and more people are getting dogs that are rescue dogs from animal shelters or that have been abused. You see this a lot in celebrity interviews, or movie stars, where they’ll be talking about their dogs and they will almost always say it was a rescue animal. And I think those sort of testimonials have a big impact.

Zazie: Another question from Patience Fisher. She says, I find this book interesting but troubling. I'm wondering if you had trouble sleeping or eating while researching it, and if any of that still haunts you?

Hal: No, and the reason for that is that I’ve been dealing with these issues for 30 years. As I described in the book in the chapter on cock fighting, I originally started thinking about these issues seriously when I started hanging out with cock fighters. When I first started going to cock fights, I had exactly that experience. When I went to my first cock fight I was very, very, troubled by it. It kept haunting me and I could not sleep at night. I had sentences going through my head about what I’d seen at the cock fights. It wasn’t just the chickens dying, it was also that the whole scene was so strange and bizarre. Being around people who on the one hand had obviously enormous respect for animals and really knew a lot about them – cockfighters I wouldn’t say loved their animals but had this enormous respect for them – and at the same time were engaged in this blood sport where they’re killing them, and then once the animal’s dead they just threw it in a pile. I just could not wrap my head around that and I became more and more intrigued by them. The other thing is I found myself liking these rooster fighters. They were very nice to me and my wife and I had just moved to the mountains and were intrigued by our rough Appalachian neighbours. And so I sort of worked my way through that.

"Human-animal relationships offer a window into how we think about ethical issues generally."

And I also had trouble when I did the study with slaughtering for college students and I spent three days helping them slaughter animals. And the same thing, I couldn’t sleep at night. I didn’t write about it in the book but I did a study with circus animals, and the same thing happened. I was very disturbed by hanging out with these circus animal trainers and seeing how much they cared for the animals, and on the other hand how it’s impossible to justify if you think about the ethics of it. So there have been a number of times in my career where I have had these experiences but I had already dealt with it by the time I was writing the book, does that make sense? I had already come to grips with the issue.

Zazie: So a related question. Were there any bits of the research that were particular highlights for you and that you particularly enjoyed?

Hal: Yeah, absolutely. The chapter that I enjoyed writing the most was the chapter on meat, because I learned so much. A lot of the chapters I knew a lot about the material already because I’d written in the area or I’d done research in the area. But the chapter on meat, I had not, and I was just fascinated, for example by the woman I open that chapter with who is a former vegetarian who is eating raw liver for breakfast. The other highlights came when I was writing the last chapter. The book originally didn’t have a last chapter. So when I talked with the publisher, Harper Collins, it turned out that he had been an animal rights person when he was younger and he understood what the book was about at a very deep level, which a lot of people did not when I would first talk about it and the proposal. He understood it and he looked at me and he said, ‘You know your book really needs a last chapter, doesn’t it?’ And I knew that deep in my heart and I said, ‘Yeah’. But I did not know how I was going to end it until I was more than half way through the book and that’s when I ran into Michael Mountain. When we went out and spent a weekend at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, it was a real highlight, hanging out there. And then meeting that woman Judy Muzzi In a bar in South Carolina and going out with her on the turtle rescue mission, those were real highlights too.

Zazie: I like what you say in the last chapter about what it means to be human and what Anthrozoology can tell us about being human and I wondered if I could get you to say a bit more about that?

Hal: I think that’s really why I wrote the book. At one time I was interviewed by a guy that has a radio talk show named Frank Stashio. I walked into his office and he said, ‘Ah, Dr. Herzog, I’ve just finished your book. It’s not really about animals, is it?’ And I wanted to kiss the guy, because he totally got it. On some levels the book is about animals, but I really wanted it to be deeper than that. I wanted to get at this issue of how you wake up in the morning and get through the day trying to be a good person in a world which is incredibly morally complicated. I’m constantly torn by the cultural and moral issues that we’re dealing with now, particularly related to the political system we’re in, and I think these are played out in our relationships with animals. One of the things about the study of human-animal relationships is people are so passionate about their relationship with animals. So if you take an issue like the debate over breed specific dog legislation, the partisans on both sides of that issue are so passionate. You know the issue really well. On the one hand you’ve got people who think pit bulls are the most misunderstood creatures on earth, on the other you’ve got people who think they are the devil incarnate, and it’s so hard for them to reach common ground. And that’s the sort of thing we’re dealing with in our political situation. Pit bull legislation is particularly interesting in this regard because the underlying theme in some ways is race. And so we see these really big themes about human nature played out on this arena of how we think about other species.
Zazie: So if you were to pick one particular human-animal issue that you think is the most important, or the most important at the moment, would you pick pit bulls or would it be something else that you would pick?

Hal: No it would not be pit bulls. The most important one in terms of the grand scheme of things would be meat eating, because we’re talking about pitting human nature, our desire to eat meat and in some ways our need to eat small amounts of meat, versus the knowledge that as more and more people decide to eat animals we have an environmentally unsustainable position. So we’re not only talking about millions and millions of animals killed for our dining pleasure, we’re also talking about the environmental cost of raising these millions and millions of animals. And then you’ve also got political issues for example in China, in India, in parts of Africa, where people have not had the luxury of eating meat. As they get wealthier they want to eat the stuff that we’ve been eating. So do we have the right to tell them, no you can’t eat that? So I think if you look at suffering, the environmental cost of the human-animal relationship that would be one of the biggest. And I think another big one would be the ethics of our relationship with pets. What right do we have to take an animal, the descendants of wolves, breed them in ways which cause them harm, intentionally breed them with harm, bring them into our home and not only do we feed them what we want to feed them we decide that they don’t have the right to a sex life and we cut off their reproductive organs. And we do this because of our personal pleasure, because we really want to love these animals. In some ways there are parallels between our love for pets and our love for meat, in that they both involve our preferences for what brings us joy, at in some cases a cost to the animals, but with meat always a cost to the animals.

Zazie: That’s really interesting, thank you. Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Hal: Well just thanks to you for picking the book and to the members of the book club for reading it and thinking about it, discussing it. Their questions are very thoughtful.

Zazie: Thank you!

You can read more about the book on Hal’s website, follow Hal on Twitter and read Hal’s blog Animals and Us at Psychology Today. And don't miss the second edition of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat

Companion Animal Psychology has published interviews with talented scientists, writers, trainers and veterinarians who are working to promote good animal welfare. See the full list.

Bio: Hal Herzog is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Western Carolina University. He received a BS in psychology from the American University of Beirut and a M.A. and Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Tennessee. Trained in animal behavior, for the past 30 years his research has focused on psychological and social aspects of human-animal interactions. These have included studies of public attitudes towards the use of animals, the decision-making processes of animal care and use committees, the roles of emotion and logic in moral judgment, the psychology of animal activism, and the impact of pets on human health and happiness. His articles have appeared in journals such as Science, the American Psychologist, Ethics and Behavior, the Journal of the American Veterinary Association, Anthrozoös, Society and Animals, Animal Behavior, the American Scholar, and Biology Letters. His articles and op eds have also appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Huffington Post, Time Magazine, and Wired Magazine. His book Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard To Think Straight About Animals (Harper) has been translated into nine languages, and he writes the blog Animals and Us for Psychology Today magazine. In 2013, he was given the Distinguished Scholar Award by the International Society for Anthrozoology.  He lives near Asheville, North Carolina with his wife Mary Jean and their cat Tilly.

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

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