Attitudes Towards Animals Over The Past Three Decades
In recent years, concern for animal welfare has been increasing, as evidenced by support for laws to improve conditions for domestic, farm, and wild animals, as well as attention garnered by cases like Cecil the lion and the Blackfish documentary. While such examples are heartening for advocates, little empirical research exists to confirm changes in concern for animal welfare over time. This study, published in Biological Conservation, investigates changes in the American public’s attitudes toward a wide variety of animal species over a period of more than three decades.
The authors replicated a well-known study conducted in 1978 by Stephen R. Kellert and Joyce K. Berry, “Knowledge, Affection and Basic Attitudes toward Animals in American Society (Phase III),” that surveyed attitudes towards 26 animal species, including domestic animals, fish and wildlife, and insects. The 1978 survey found that domestic dogs, horses, and swans were among the most liked animals, while rats, mosquitoes, and cockroaches were among the least liked. Additionally, predator species including wolves and coyotes were not well-liked.
In the second study, conducted in 2014, the authors distributed online surveys instead of conducting in-person interviews . They also added the cougar, or mountain lion. Both surveys asked respondents to rate animals on a scale from one (strongly like) to seven (strongly dislike).
Overall results showed that attitudes towards animals were similar across both studies, although significant differences were found for eight species. The 2014 respondents reported more positive attitudes towards four historically stigmatized species: bats, sharks, vultures, and rats. In regards to predator species, the proportion of 2014 respondents reporting positive attitudes toward wolves increased by 42%, and the proportion reporting positive attitudes toward coyotes increased by 47%. Conversely, the proportion of respondents reporting positive attitudes towards raccoons and swans decreased by 41% and 21% respectively.
The authors note that their results are consistent with other findings that show how an increase in urbanization, income, and education has led to a change in Americans’ attitudes toward wildlife, shifting from one of domination to one of caring and compassion. They also speculate that historically stigmatized species such as sharks and bats are viewed more positively because the public has greater access to information about them through scientific publications and science-based media programming. In addition, the public views rats more positively, in part because of growing concern for animals used in scientific research. Finally, they note that increasing urbanization has led to a rise in human-wildlife conflicts with raccoons and swans but not with wolves, who avoid urban areas, or coyotes, who avoid interacting with people.
Following the theory that people who hold positive attitudes towards a species are more likely to have a concern for their welfare, the authors express hope that more positive attitudes about historically stigmatized and predator species may “foretell increased support for efforts to conserve these species, and support for policies that explicitly consider their welfare.” They also note that their findings could help policy makers, and presumably advocates, gauge public support for management practices and policies. Advocates may also find ratings on individual species useful and should note that access to scientific information about animals may lead to more positive views of them.