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Herzog earns accolades for decades of studying human-animal interactions

fr herzogPassion, love, hate and violence — are all very human. But the best way of understanding these and other human attributes might not be by studying humans at all. The animals around us, says Western Carolina University Psychology Professor Harold Herzog, may hold the key.


Herzog has spent a quarter century researching and shedding light on the interactions between humans and animals: from the relationship between you and the chicken in your freezer to the one between a Southern cock fighter and his fighting rooster. 

“We see the best and worst in human nature played out through other species,” Herzog said. “My real goal is to understand human behavior.”

This year, he won the Distinguished Scholar Award from the International Association of Human-Animal Interaction Organizations and the International Society for Anthrozoology. It’s an award given out every three years to the person who has made the biggest contributions as to how humans think about and relate to other species

Herzog got his start in the 1970s with his doctoral dissertation on the culture surrounding cock fighters in Western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee. He spent two years studying the sport and it became blaringly apparent to him that there was something profoundly telling about humans at the center of it all.

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Many people, who are content to eat chicken mass-produced on mega farms under despicable conditions look down on the immoral act of chicken fights. Meanwhile, his research seemed to indicate there was a strong argument for the contrary.

“My justification for eating them was really not that much different than their justifications for fighting them,” he said. “And if you were to come back as a chicken in your next life, you’d rather be a North Carolina gamecock than a chicken nugget.”

Yet, one activity is widely accepted and the other exists on the fringes of society. This let him know, early on in his career, that you can tell a lot about a culture by how it treats its animals.

This pattern of morality, he saw repeated time and again throughout his studies and research.

Take a dog, for example. In Western culture dogs have been humanized and made part of the family. In Asia, approximately 25 million dogs are eaten per year. And in other countries, such as Saudi Arabia, they most likely wouldn’t eat a dog, or spend too much time petting it, because the animal is generally seen as vermin, like rats.

“We don’t eat the animals we really love and we don’t eat the animals we really hate,” Herzog said, as a rule of thumb.

The morality humans choose to attribute to different animal species is purely cultural, and it is blatantly obvious, when you can take a step back and view things with an objective lens.

Many cat owners, who consider themselves animal lovers, knowingly let their cats roam free and kill countless numbers of birds and small critters for pure sport, only because the owners feel too guilty locking their feline friends up in the house. Herzog knows because he is a guilty party and feels worse about owning an outdoor cat than eating meat.

Yet, most cat owners tend to live in denial that their little Fluffy is a “recreational serial killer,” as he puts it. On the other side of the issue are bird lovers, who hold a disdain for cats and in some cases turn to poisoning and shooting the pets in defense of the birds.

“They’re both good people and want to do the right thing,” Herzog said. “But they see that in completely different ways and invent their own justifications.”

Some dog owners go to similar lengths in defense of their canines. A friend of Herzog recently shelled out $12,000 in medical bills to treat a Labrador with cancer. The dog survived, but the owner’s checkbook took a serious hit. Why most humans wouldn’t go to similar lengths for the well being of other species of animals was the topic of one of Herzog’s books, Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals.

“There are two types of animals in our house,” Herzog said. “The one that we consider our pets and the others whose flesh is in our freezer.”

Herzog said many dog lovers will tout the benefits of having a dogs and ignore the negatives. You’re 100 times more likely to be injured by a dog than a poisonous snake. Dogs are a common tripping hazard and send their owners to the emergency room, and the pets are one of the top reasons for disputes between neighbors.

Moreover, despite assertions to the contrary, many dog owners choose the breed or the type of dog they get based on fads — similar to popular music, fashion and baby names. By studying a data set of 50 million dogs kept by a kennel association, Herzog could see rapid rise in popularity of certain dogs over the years, regardless of their suitability as pets, and then the breed’s following downfall.

“Breeds that are hard to live with can get very popular very fast, so can unhealthy breeds,” Herzog said. “Our breed choices are basically choices of fashion. They’re just copying.”

The current trend is to adopt a rescue dog, and tell everyone it’s a rescue dog. Before that it was purebred German Shepherds or Labradors.

The dog data was so telling, it caused Herzog to change his ideas about the driving force behind human nature.

“Culture is more important than biology,” he said. “I changed my mind because of how people pick their dogs.”

Another interesting trend in pet ownership is the growing number of people who are keeping rats as pets, but also keeping it a secret.

Herzog found similar lessons and insights covering animal crusaders, like members People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals; church services in the south that utilize poisonous snakes; and animal hoarders who tend to believe they are doing a service for abandoned animals while keeping them in horrendous living conditions.

Herzog is now researching the relationship between circus animals and their trainers. Though the trainers often get a bad rap, as cruel and abusive, many hold their animal — whether they be tigers, dancing elephants or shows horses — in the highest regard.

“It’s a relationship that’s really, really morally complicated,” Herzog said. “It’s not ethical to keep them in cages and make them do animal pet tricks — but they really do love these animals.”

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