By Jill Howard-Church, Animals and Society Institute (ASI)
Americans are often described as great "animal lovers," and many of the Valentines being exchanged this week will feature kittens, puppies and other images of furry fondness as an example of how we associate them with affection.
But what does being an "animal lover" really mean today?
The widening study of human-animal relationships is calling this concept into question. When we study the many ways in which human beings interact with other species, it becomes obvious that those relationships are complex and often contradictory.
People buy T-shirts and license plate frames proclaiming "I (heart) Collies" but are slow to crack down on puppy mills. We name sports teams after animals we admire, including wolves, bears and cougars, but allow hunting and trapping in all 50 states. We collectively spend millions of dollars on food, treats and accessories for companion animals, but euthanize millions of them in municipal shelters.
In midrange of "loving," there are thousands of people who visit zoos, aquariums and wildlife parks to get closer looks at animals they otherwise would not encounter in their daily lives. Society justifies these animals' captivity by saying that conservation and preservation can only be achieved if people have direct contact with animals: saving wildlife at the expense of taking individual lives out of the wild.
We love the idea of some animals – rabbits in springtime or lambs in a child's nursery – but pay little attention to how the real ones are used by industry.
At the farthest end of the spectrum is the "love" of products taken or made from animals. Relatively few people say they "love" pigs, but how many openly "love" bacon? Others "love" clothing and furniture made from leather with no knowledge of how the skins were stripped from the bodies of cattle whom nobody apparently "loved." There are some who "love" horse races but don't notice or care if those same horses end up in slaughterhouses.
The implications are both economic and ethical, which is why scholars are devoting more time to investigating and discussing what different animals mean to us under different circumstances. It's quite enlightening to read all of the studies in the Society & Animals journal and similar publications (of which there are more every year), hear presentations at conferences and ponder books and movies that question what loving or respecting animals really means on a daily basis.
"Love" can be a distant or passing fancy with someone (human or not) whose attributes charm us, regardless of whether a real relationship is ever established. But (as Jonathan Safran Foer pointed out in his book Eating Animals) we need not "love" animals in order to find it morally compelling to protect them from suffering. We can choose personal habits and enact public policies that meet our needs without denying theirs.
And one of the first steps toward doing that is reassessing and redefining what "love" means not only to us but, more importantly, to them. Too often (to paraphrase Tina Turner), love's got nothing to do with it.
Jill Howard-Church is a writer and editor who specializes in animal issues. She serves as the part-time communications director for the Animals and Society Institute, and is the volunteer president of the Vegetarian Society of Georgia.