Friends or Food?

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Friends or Food?

[Ed. Note: Please also read It’s Time for a Paradigm Shift. So much of what stops people from being generous and kind to ALL animals is speciesism: some "life forms" are more important than other "life forms."]

By Jill Howard-Church on Humane Research Council (HRC)

At issue is how children are taught to develop “conceptual distance” between sympathetic animal characters they can identify with versus the real but less familiar animals who killed for their consumption.

A study of the relationship between animals depicted in children’s literature and films versus toy animals used to promote fast-food meals considers how these relationships affect children and their ability to emotionally separate themselves from animals they consume.

Study Summary

Kate Stewart of Bristol University and Matthew Cole of Cardiff University looked at how different species of animals and the practice of meat-eating were portrayed in popular children’s films, including “Babe,” “The Lion King” and “Chicken Run.” The portrayals of animals and the issue of meat-eating in these films were then related to the use of animal-themed toys sold in fast-food meals aimed at children. At issue is how children are taught to develop “conceptual distance” between sympathetic animal characters they can identify with versus the real but less familiar animals who killed for their consumption.

As the authors concluded, this conceptual journey “allows the consumer to ‘enjoy’ each animal item in the product box without conceptually connecting the two, thus contributing to the socialization of the child into the ‘normal’ eat/protect models of human-animal relations.”

Policy Implications

The odd juxtaposition – physically and figuratively – of animal-themed toys beside meat products in fast-food meals marketed to children illustrates one of the many contradictory messages society sends about the treatment of animals. How do we decide which animals are friends and which are food? Which are pets and which are products?

This study exemplifies the “conceptual distances” in models of human-animal relationships, which permit children to compartmentalize animals even within the same species or community. Given that attitudes toward animals are formed very early in life, lessons of this type show how “messages about culturally appropriate relationships with nonhuman animals are transmitted in childhood” – often to be repeated without question from one generation to the next.


Derived from “The Conceptual Separation of Food and Animals in Childhood,” published in Food, Culture and Society: An International Journal of Multidisciplinary Research, Volume 12, Number 4, December 2009 , pp. 457-476(20).

This research nutshell comes from Jill Howard Church at the Animals and Society Institute (ASI), an organization dedicated to policy-oriented research and human-animal studies. HRC and ASI already collaborate on multiple projects and we will work together to identify important studies for future research nutshells. Jill is also the volunteer president of the Vegetarian Society of Georgia.