Recently, an almost literal case of lifeboat ethics occurred. On Aug. 4, Graham and Sheryl Anley, while yachting off the coast of South Africa, hit a reef, capsizing their boat. As the boat threatened to sink and they scrambled to get off, Sheryl’s safety line snagged on something, trapping her there. Instead of freeing his wife and getting her to shore, Graham grabbed Rosie, their Jack Russell terrier. (One media account reported that Sheryl had insisted that the dog go first). With Rosie safe and sound, Graham returned for Sheryl. All are doing fine.It’s a great story, but it doesn’t strike me as especially newsworthy. News is supposed to be about something fairly unique, and recent research suggests that, in the right circumstances, lots of people also would have grabbed their Rosie first.
We have strange relationships with our pets, something examined in a wonderful book by the psychologist Hal Herzog, “Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals.” We lavish our pets with adoration and better health care than billions of people receive. We speak to pets with the same high-pitched voices that we use for babies (though when addressing pets, we typically don’t repeat and emphasize key words as we do with babies, in the hope of boosting their language acquisition). As a grotesque example of our feelings about pets, the Nazis had strict laws that guaranteed the humane treatment of the pets of Jews being shipped to death camps.
These are unique ways for one species to interact with another. On occasion, a predatory cat, after killing an adult prey, adopts the prey’s offspring for a few days; these cats are usually confused adolescent females, swirling with the start of those strange maternal urges. But there is certainly no other animal that puts costumes on members of another species on Halloween.
A recent paper by Richard Topolski at George Regents University and colleagues, published in the journal Anthrozoös, demonstrates this human involvement with pets to a startling extent. Participants in the study were told a hypothetical scenario in which a bus is hurtling out of control, bearing down on a dog and a human. Which do you save? With responses from more than 500 people, the answer was that it depended: What kind of human and what kind of dog?
Everyone would save a sibling, grandparent or close friend rather than a strange dog. But when people considered their own dog versus people less connected with them—a distant cousin or a hometown stranger—votes in favor of saving the dog came rolling in. And an astonishing 40% of respondents, including 46% of women, voted to save their dog over a foreign tourist. This makes Parisians’ treatment of American tourists look good in comparison.
What does a finding like this mean? First, that your odds aren’t so good if you find yourself in another country with a bus bearing down on you and a cute dog. But it also points to something deeper: our unprecedented attitude toward animals, which got its start with the birth of humane societies in the 19th century.
We jail people who abuse animals, put ourselves in harm’s way in boats between whales and whalers, carry our childhood traumas of what happened to Bambi’s mother. We can extend empathy to another organism and feel its pain like no other species. But let’s not be too proud of ourselves. As this study and too much of our history show, we’re pretty selective about how we extend our humaneness to other human beings.
—Mr. Sapolsky is a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University and the author of many books. He will write the ‘Mind & Matter’ column every other week.