A global survey of the human-animal bond - September 15, 2003

Numerous factors influence attitudes toward animals
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A growing body of research into the human-animal bond is revealing how various cultures relate to animals and the reasons why, stated 2003-2004 AVMA president-elect Dr. Bonnie V. Beaver, who discussed globalization of the human-animal bond as part of the Leo Bustad Memorial Lecture, July 22.

People throughout the world relate to animals on the basis of such factors as their society, culture, and personal values, said Dr. Beaver, a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists and a professor at Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine.

Economics is a strong influence on a society's value of animals, she said. For instance, the human-animal bond is stronger in prosperous nations such as the United States, Canada, Germany, and England. Because their basic needs are satisfied, citizens in those countries have disposable income to provide for veterinary care and can contemplate the moral value of animals.

In less-developed countries where food, education, and heath care are scarce, animals will be valued more for their utility.

"Only in the countries that 'have' do we see a strong interest in animal welfare and rights," Dr. Beaver said.

People demonstrate nine basic attitudes toward animals. Dr. Beaver described these as attachments as interest in the beauty of animals; a desire to master them; strong affection for animals; sense of kinship with animals; feelings of dislike for animals; and treatment of animals as a means to an end.

International trade in wildlife is a booming business. According to Dr. Beaver, 25,000 to 30,000 primates, 2 to 3 million birds, 2 to 3 million reptiles, and 5 to 6 million ornamental fish are bought and sold annually.

Illegal animal importation can have major implications for veterinary medicine, she added, since the animals might be harboring infectious disease.

Looking at the human-animal bond on a regional basis, North America tends to be "schizophrenic," Dr. Beaver said. Pets are family members for many people. For others, they are disposable and have no value whatsoever.

Western Europeans have a more consistent view of animals. Livestock are afforded greater legal protections; pets often accompany owners to stores and restaurants; stray pets are uncommon; strict pet ownership laws exist; and the animal rights movement is very active.

Given the country's limited space, not many Japanese own pets, so pets are an expensive privilege, according to Dr. Beaver. As a result, the Japanese try to satisfy their desire for animal companionship by taking advantage of dog-renting services or opt for one of the popular robotic pets.

The human-animal bond is weaker in parts of Southeast Asia. In addition to treating dogs as companions, some Asian cultures use them as food.

Elsewhere in the world, particularly in areas where food is scarce and economies depressed, animals are not luxuries but a source of survival. Africans value animals according to their usefulness. Cattle are signs of wealth, and animal parts, such as gorilla hands, are commodities. Africans commonly use animals for transportation, too.

The positive aspects of the human-animal bond are beginning to be recognized around the world. At the past two International Conferences on Human-Animal Interactions—held in Prague, Czech Republic, in 1998 and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2001—research into a broad range of topics was presented.

Most of the research focused on positive aspects of the bond. These included the role of service animals and the human health benefits of animal ownership. But some studies examined negative interactions, including the challenges of pet ownership, bestiality and zoophilia, and dog phobia.

"We need to understand the negatives as well as the positives," Dr. Beaver observed.

When the human-animal bond was first coming into fashion, much of the discussion was based on anecdotal evidence. But that's changing. Dr. Beaver is gladdened that human-animal interactions are now being scientifically investigated to determine what is good for people and good for animals, too.