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Going to the Mat for Fluffy and Fido

Pets: When animals are in distress, the calls, cash and coverage come on thick. Why? It could be because we ascribe to them the ingenuousness and vulnerability of kids.

April 11, 1996|KATHLEEN KELLEHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The young mother dashed five times into the burning building to rescue her babies, one by one. The fiery gantlet singed her so badly that her eyes were swollen shut, her ears burned black, her feet bloodied and raw.

Her heroics touched thousands of hearts around the world--more deeply, experts say, than if the courageous mother had been a human being.

Images of the mother cat, blindly hovering over her five tiny uninjured kittens, captured the sympathy of people from as far away as Japan and the Netherlands as television news stations broadcast the story several days after the incident late last month.

Since then, more than 8,000 calls have been made to adopt or send support to Scarlett (her newly given name, borrowed from "Gone With the Wind"), some offering to take in the entire kitty clan to lessen their trauma. About $9,000 has been sent on Scarlett's behalf, says a spokeswoman at the North Shore Animal Shelter in Port Washington, N.Y.

Such outpourings of sympathy for animals in distress are common and, in some cases, appear to be more powerful than responses to stories about human suffering.

The exception appears to be abandoned infants, says spokesman Schuyler Sprowles of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. Telephone calls in response to abandoned babies or abused children are difficult to quantify (as are donations made on behalf of a particular child), but Sprowles estimates that the number of calls probably rarely tops 100.

"People are sophisticated enough to know that you can't just adopt a child with a phone call, but they always want to adopt that child that was abandoned," Sprowles says. "Animals are more accessible. You stand a chance of actually adopting a particular animal in need."

The critters need not even be cuddly to pull heart strings and cash from the wallet.

When a German shepherd in Houston killed an infant in 1992, the city's animal control bureau received more than 30 calls from people defending the dog, some eager to adopt it. Reportedly, most callers never mentioned the mauled infant. One caller even offered to defend the dog in court.

With more than a million dollars and the help of the U.S. military, Soviet ice breakers, Eskimos, environmentalists and oil companies, two California gray whales were freed from an Alaskan ice floe in 1988. And in less than three months, $107,000 was raised to house a grizzly bear and her two cubs in Big Bear, saving them from being destroyed by Montana authorities who considered them a nuisance. (In Yogi Bear tradition, they had been raiding garbage cans.)

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Most psychologists, ethologists and philosophers say the public response to animals in need can be explained as part of our tendency to attribute human characteristics to animals. About 85% of pet owners consider their pets to be family members. And the more an animal displays what we think of as human characteristics (such as maternal courage) and the greater the adversity for the animal, the stronger the sympathetic response.

Still other experts suggest that many people feel animals are more vulnerable and innocent than humans.

"An animal is much more of a victim than a human being," says Bernard Rollin, a philosophy professor at Colorado State University at Fort Collins. "When you see a homeless person, you say to yourself, 'Well, they don't have to live like that. They can pick themselves up by their bootstraps.' But an animal is incapable of action on its own behalf. Innocence is the thing. And children are primordially innocent like animals."

Research indicates that we show greater compassion to animals that are more similar to us genetically (primates) as well as to those species that we have relationships with, such as dogs, cats, rabbits, birds and even turtles.

And as we have become more sensitive to such moral issues as the ethics of scientific testing on certain animals, we have become less tolerant of even the slightest display of animal suffering.

"There are three human attributes people give to animals: being baby-like or socially cute like cats and dogs, with their big eyes; being social, like prairie dogs; and being intelligent, like whales and dolphins," says Alan Beck, professor of animal ethology at Purdue University. "If I went into a burning building to grab my kids no one would be surprised, but when a cat does it, it is making human judgment."

Beck found in studies that 99% of pet owners report talking to their animals and that 75% of children say they confide in their pets. Such intimacy is culturally acceptable and certainly fosters the public's weakness for an animal in distress.

"Because whales are considered intelligent, those whales rescued in Alaska became the poster child for all whales in trouble. This was the most inappropriate form of anthropomorphism. Marine ethologists were saying it was a great waste of money, that whales get trapped regularly and that the money would have been better spent on conservation of the entire species."

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