The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Americans love animals more than they used to — even ‘scary’ ones

A female wolf from the Minam pack outside La Grande, Ore., after it was fitted with a tracking collar. (Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife via AP)

There are 48 days until the presidential election, and it often feels as if we Americans are at each other’s throats. Sometimes it seems as though all we can agree on — or agree to click “like” on — are dog and cat videos, right?

Actually, that’s not so far from the truth. Americans do broadly have positive feelings about dogs and cats — and they also feel warmer and fuzzier about wild animals, such as sharks and wolves, than they did four decades ago.

That’s when ecologist Stephen Kellert and colleagues carried out what became a keystone survey of Americans’ attitudes toward animals. Researchers recently conducted the survey again, and they found that while dogs and cats maintained their rock-solid top spots in U.S. hearts, creatures that were long hated have risen in the ranks. According to the results, published this month in the journal Biological Conservation, Americans today feel “significantly more positive” about bats, sharks, vultures, wolves and coyotes than they did in 1978.

Those differences could signal “growing concern for the welfare of animals — both wild and domestic,” the authors wrote, and that could help wildlife conservation efforts. But they offer a counterintuitive note of caution: It could also lead to more fighting over how to treat animals.

It may seem like a no-brainer that American concern for animals has grown. Ever year, we spend a few billion more dollars on our pets. Consumer concern for farm animals is freeing chickens from cages and pigs from crates. Cecil the lion is a household name. SeaWorld has sworn off orca breeding; Ringling Bros. has retired elephants.

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But as the authors noted, there has been little solid research on these shifting feelings since Kellert’s survey, particularly about wild animals. And in that time, a lot has changed. More Americans have moved to cities, increasing their distance from animals that live in forests, rivers or barns. But scientific understanding about animal intelligence, behavior and vulnerability has blossomed, and it’s rapidly conveyed to the public online and on television programming such as Discovery’s “Shark Week.”

So are those trends generating fonder feelings toward animals that long had icky or scary reputations? The authors aren’t sure, but they cite research that suggests American views of wildlife are shifting away from an emphasis on “domination” toward “harmony, care-taking and empathy.” And, they write, “the increases in positive attitudes toward wildlife demonstrated by this study could lead to increased support for species conservation activities.”

But it’s complicated, for a few reasons. The world’s human population is on a course to hit 9.7 billion by 2050, and all those people are going to need more to eat. If we keep using today’s food production methods, that will require more land for crops and cows, chickens and other meat sources, which will mean less habitat for wild animals (and could catalyze a sixth “mass extinction“).

What’s more, city folks’ growing love for wolves and coyotes might stir social and political tension over how to deal with those predators in rural areas where they’re more abundant; some people in the Great Lakes region, for example, would like to be able to shoot wolves. And if public concern about farm animals gets more out of barns and into pastures, they’ll probably become more vulnerable to canine predators, which also might trigger fights among people.

Watch kids’ toys explain why killing wolves might be a bad idea

Then again, the authors write, the growing concern could inspire innovative solutions to wildlife conservation and conflicts. Co-author Jeremy Bruskotter, an associate professor of environment and natural resources at Ohio State University, told Conservation Magazine that the key is to leverage Americans’ expanding care for animals and turn it into wildlife-supporting dollars. These days, the magazine noted, most state-level conservation funds come from licensing activities that lead to dead animals: hunting, trapping and fishing.

“I think that public support for conservation efforts, as well as efforts to increase the well-being of animals is very high — perhaps as high as it has ever been,” Bruskotter said. “But this won’t translate into more conservation until we have a funding model that isn’t so tied to consumptive forms of outdoor recreation.”

By the way, only two of 33 animals fared worse in the recent survey than they did in 1978: Raccoons and swans. The authors weren’t sure why.

Here, in order of most liked to least liked, are the animals that came out on top and on bottom.

Top Six:

Dog, butterfly, eagle, horse, robin, elephant, cat

Bottom Six:

Skunk, rattlesnake, wasp, rat, cockroach, mosquito

Read more:

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