Web edition: December 3, 2010
Print edition: December 18, 2010; Vol.178 #13 (p. 30)
In his lively book on human-animal interactions, Herzog denies rumors that he feeds kittens to snakes. For a while, however, his academic research did focus on snake behavior, and his son did have a pet boa. Whispers circulated, but Herzog says the little snake could barely tackle a mouse.
The incident serves as an example of the complexity of human reactions to animals. The idea of scooping up little fluffballs and dropping them into a snake cage unsurprisingly repels most people. But at least one of Herzog’s critics allows pet cats to roam outdoors, a practice that dooms an estimated billion birds and other small animals each year to becoming cat food.
Considering this, Herzog asks why animal lives are valued so differently. Maybe to feed pet snakes, it would be kinder to sacrifice shelter cats that are doomed anyway, he says, instead of purposefully raising more creatures as food. He says he would never take such an approach, but the thought experiment drives home how inconsistent human attitudes are toward animals.
As he became more interested in such questions, Herzog’s research shifted from reptile behavior to anthrozoology, the study of how humans and animals interact. Some We Love offers an engaging tour of this emerging field, including much that’s intriguing to anyone who has ever loved a house pet.
Herzog comes across as a gentle observer seeking foremost to understand. He writes thoughtfully, for example, about cockfights and animal activism. While focusing on ethical questions, including animal research and eating meat, he pulls in plenty of research data. (One experiment, for example, found that dogs put on a sheepish look when their human companions inadvertently give them cues to act guilty, not when the dogs have actually misbehaved.)
At first Herzog found “flagrant moral incoherence” about animals troubling, he says. But in the end, he makes a case that such mixed feelings are inevitable — a finish that’s both disturbing and comforting.HarperCollins, 2010, 326 p., $25.99.