The dog was just a puppy, about a year old.
I can’t tell you his name, but I can tell you how he ended up getting shot in the head in Washington on a recent night.
The dog’s owner had just parked his car in a Northeast neighborhood when he stepped out and was approached from behind by someone who pressed an object against his back, according to the police report. “Don’t move,” the stranger said before taking an iPhone X and money from the man’s pocket.
The dog was still sitting in the car when this happened, its owner told police. Then, suddenly, it wasn’t. It jumped out of the car and ran toward the robber, possibly biting him as he headed for a red four-door sedan parked in an alley. Another person in the waiting car, sitting in the back seat, fired a handgun at the dog and hit the puppy in the face.
The people responsible for doing this on Friday night, if arrested, could face charges for the robbery and for animal cruelty.
But here is what they already face: public scorn.
“We need a new law: shoot a dog, do twenty years,” reads one of the comments on a short Washington Post story about the incident that was published over the weekend.
“The robber potentially stole something of irreplaceable value: the life of the man’s best friend,” reads another. “We’re all pulling for you, Fido.”
“I hope he pulls through,” reads a third. “I would love to contribute to the dog’s medical bills if needed.”
In the years that I covered crime, it always struck me — and sometimes bothered me — how people could care so intensely about an injured animal but not always about a person who was hurt or worse. I grew up with pets. I appreciate how they can become beloved members of a household. Still, it has always seemed wrong that a story about battered dogs could garner more sympathy and outrage than one about battered women.
If you think that is an exaggeration, ask yourself this about the incident above: If the chain of events had gone differently, and the dog’s owner had been the one shot, would people care more or less? Would people be offering to pay his medical bills? And why is that?
I spoke to experts on the subject to understand the source of our compassion when it comes to animals versus humans, and it is more complex than I previously thought. It is not about valuing one over the other.
The swell of sympathy that occurs for animal victims is not in our imagination, experts say. We do feel more for them, and it’s normal.
“The key variable is vulnerability,” said Jack Levin, a Northeastern University professor who was one of the authors of a study titled, “Are People More Disturbed by Dog or Human Suffering?”
The study, with co-authors Arnold Arluke and Leslie Irvine, presented 256 undergraduates with fictitious news reports about a brutal beating that involved one of four creatures: an adult human, a child, an adult dog and a puppy. What the results showed was that people felt more strongly for children, puppies and adult dogs than they did for adult humans.
“We care about those who need to be cared about,” Levin said. “Puppies, infants and adult dogs are all viewed by us as in need of our help. The only category that is seen as beyond that need are adult human beings.”
Dogs, he said, are also often regarded as members of our family. When the dog he had for 12 years died, he said, his family grieved for four years before they could get another one. They also had a portrait made of the one they lost.
Hal Herzog has spent three decades studying the psychology of human interactions with animals and wrote the book “Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat.” When I spoke to him, he said he has been asked by more than one person about why people feel more sympathy for dogs than their fellow humans.
“It’s so deliciously psychologically complicated,” Herzog said of the relationship between people and their canine companions.
“It’s common for people to feel great sympathy for animals, and that’s one of the good things about our species,” he said. “We’re one of the only species that can care that much about another species.”
He pointed to how many people didn’t leave their homes during Hurricane Katrina because they didn’t want to abandon their pets. Women in abusive relationships have also been found to stay in dangerous situations for the same reason. It is why more shelters for battered women are now welcoming pets.
At the same time, not every kind of animal or even every type of pooch pulls at us the same way. We still eat cows and chickens. We still hate mice and rats. And there are some dogs we trust more than others.
“I think the most divisive of all animal issues is not eating animals or hunting animals; it’s over pit bull dogs,” Herzog said.
The dog that was shot was a “mixed breed” male dog about a year old, according to David Smith, chief communications officer for the Humane Rescue Alliance in the District.
The Alliance is investigating the case as a possible incident of animal cruelty, which carries penalties of up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $25,000.
I tried but couldn’t reach the owner of the dog, because his cellphone was stolen and because he didn’t respond to messages sent through people who know him. If I had spoken to him, I would have asked the dog’s name and included with this column an adorable photo of it bandaged but alive.
That’s right — it survived.
The dog was released back to its owner over the weekend, Smith said, and while it will probably lose an eye, it is also expected to make a full recovery.
If that makes you feel relieved, that’s okay. That sympathy we feel for this dog and others that are hurt, after all, is what makes us human.