Feeding Kittens to Boa Constrictors

Yes, my title is shocking. It’s an attention-getter, but I didn’t use it as clickbait and I didn’t make it up. It was the working title for a book by psychology professor Hal Herzog. His publisher wasn’t a fan of that title and it was published as Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals

Herzog’s work examines the contradictions in our relationships with animals. He wanted to answer questions such as “Does living with animals really make us healthier?” and “Why do we eat some animals and keep others as pets?”

On that first question, research shows that pets make people happier and healthier. There is also research that shows that pets, by way of caring for them and losing them, make people unhappy and unhealthy.

There is also research that posits that it is happier and healthier people who are more likely to have pets.

Pets also limit us with their needs, cost us money and cause much grief when they die. Americans spend $80 billion a year on their pets.

Cats that are allowed outside contribute to the deaths of 1-5 billion birds per year (estimates vary widely). So then is it better to trap cats indoors for their entire lives? Is it right to trap any animal in a cage, tank or wandering a mostly empty house or apartment?

Herzog’s work is in the field of anthrozoology. I don’t think I knew that word before I read the book. It is the study of interactions between humans and other animals. I knew anthropomorphic, which is the way we attach human characteristics to animals. This is not just the way a monkey or ape appears human, but how we attach human qualities to our pet dogs and cats.

The book is a nice combination of personal anecdotes and scientific research. Of course, this line of inquiry also has to consider moral and ethical positions we have, often paradoxical, about our relationship with animals.

For example, vegans buy animal flesh for their cats to eat.

Herzog had boa constrictors in his lab and they needed to be fed. Typically, they would buy live mice for them to eat. But he realized that there were kittens being euthanized at a local shelter that he could get for the boa constrictors. Feeding dead kittens to the snakes seemed more moral than killing mice. Right?

We generally don’t think of mice in the same way that we think of kittens. To further muddy the moral waters, Herzog’s daughter had a pet mouse. When it died, they made the shoebox coffin and the backyard burial with the typical ceremony. Later, he caught a mouse that had been trying to break into their kitchen in a trap. It was disposed of unceremoniously in the trash.  Why the differences?

That vegan with the cat will need to buy about 50 pounds of meat a year. Why not own a snake that requires about 5 pounds of meat per year? Cat versus snake. Not much of a contest.

He tells the story of someone who decides that keeping a bird caged is wrong. So, he frees the bird. And then he realizes that the bird will very likely die out in the wild.

It is no surprise that the World Wildlife Fund chose the Chinese Giant Panda as its symbol instead of the Chinese Giant Salamander.

Another story to consider is on a trip to Africa when he asks a native a few questions about dogs. “Would you allow a dog in your home?” The native is shocked. “Never!”  Would he allow it to eat food from the family table, or sleep in his bed? Would he give it hugs and let it kiss him? Looks of shock and disgust. Cultural differences.  Some we love. Some we hate. Some we eat.

For an easy entry into this difficult topic and more on Herzog’s research and book, listen to Our Animal Instincts, an episode of Hidden Brain from NPR.

You might also like to read Hal Herzog’s blog for Psychology Today.  He addresses other animal-human issues like Should Self-Driving Cars Spare People Over Pets? and Why Do Kids Become Less Attached To Pets As They Get Older?

Desire and Intention

There seem to be new stories every day in the news about rape.  Today, while reading a post OnBeing.org about the Buddha, this story from 2600 years ago seemed like something that belonged on the evening news.

The Buddha challenged the commonly held view in India that sexual desire arising in a man’s mind was a woman’s fault. Desire, and by extension rape, was the result of the female’s temptation of the male.

Americans are often viewed as being the worst in this regard and are often criticized by other countries and cultures not only for the temptations but for the inappropriate actions based on those temptations. But we know that this outdated view on desire, especially sexual desire, is not relegated to America, and that it is accepted on a wider scale in other countries.

I remember when I started teaching in 1975 in a public middle school that when the weather was hot we would always have girls who were sent to the office for “immodest dress.”  I admit that at that time it made sense to me that what I didn’t need in my classroom half-filled with 13-year-old boys was a “provocatively” dressed 13-year-old girl. Now, it makes less logical sense to me, and yet the 13-year-old boy still living inside me isn’t entirely sure about right action.

As that blog post reminds us, “the Buddha may have issued the challenge, but far from all Buddhists heed it.”

Deflecting responsibility for our desires and our actions based on those desires means we do not have control over our own lives.

In the Buddha’s time, India’s caste system did not view morals as being the same for all castes or genders.

Buddha’s radical ethics are still radical.

The moral quality of an action is held in the intention that gives rise to the action. “Not by birth is one a Brahman, or an outcast,” the Buddha said, “but by deeds.” This teaching, in effect, declared the entire social structure of India, considered sacrosanct by many, to be of no spiritual significance at all. By pointing out to us the crucial importance of our own intentions, the Buddha was making clear that each of us is responsible for our own minds, and therefore for our own freedom.

On Being

The Helix Nebula, also known as The Eye of God

Since childhood, I have been a big radio fan. Nowadays, a lot of my radio listening is done via podcasts that I listen to on an iPod or via Stitcher online “radio” – but it’s still radio.  I started listening to Speaking of Faith in 2003 when it became a weekly radio program. I think some people may have been put off by the word “faith” thinking it’s a show about just religion. It’s not. Though many religious practices are topics, so is finding the spirituality and meaning in many other parts of our lives.

The program changed its name from “Speaking of Faith with Krista Tippett” to “Krista Tippett on Being.”  The programs are still much the same but the producers said at the time they changed the name that they could be in “a more spacious container for what the program has become.”

“Speaking of Faith” may have suggested religion to people, but the program always described itself as “religion, meaning, ethics and ideas” and the latter three probably made up more of the programs.

On Being might also be a name that points to a change in the way Americans think about faith – less connected with a religion and more connected to meaning, ethics and ideas. It is a more “hospitable” word than “faith” for non-Christian and non-religious listeners.

I also follow their blog.

The show’s producer and host is Krista Tippett.  She has an interesting bio. She grew up in Oklahoma, the granddaughter of a Southern Baptist preacher; studied history at Brown University and went to West Germany in 1983 on a Fulbright Scholarship; stayed in divided Berlin as a correspondent and became a special assistant to the U.S. Ambassador to West Germany. She left in 1988. Krista got an M.Div. from Yale in 1994.

In 2007, Krista published her first book, Speaking of Faith about the issues that made up the programs. And she sees the show as one that can “draw out the intellectual and spiritual content of religion that should nourish our common life, but that is often obscured precisely when religion enters the news.”

Her book Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit is actually the one I read first because of my fascination with Einstein and the ways science connects and rejects religion.

You can listen to many of the programs online at http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org and subscribe (free) to the podcasts of the show with iTunes or other services.

Their website lists show topics from physics (“Uncovering the Codes for Reality”; “Mathematics, Purpose, and Truth”) to parenting (“What we Nurture”); from civil society (“The Inward Work of Democracy”; “Words that Shimmer”); to aging (“The Far Shore of Aging”; “Contemplating Mortality”); from yoga (“The Body’s Grace”; “Meditation in Action”) to neuroscience (“Creativity and the Everyday Brain”; “Investigating Healthy Minds”), from urban renewal (“Becoming Detroit”; “Evolving a City”) to farm to table food (“Driven by Flavor”); from “The Last Quiet Places” to ocean exploration; and from Desmond Tutu to Rosanne Cash and from the Dalai Lama to Rumi.


About the image: This NASA Hubble Space Telescope composite of photos from the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona shows a Helix Nebula. The Helix Nebula (also known as NGC 7293) is a planetary nebula about 700 light-years away in the constellation Aquarius. It is one of the closest planetary nebulae to Earth and was discovered by Karl Ludwig Harding before 1824. Since, 2003, it has appeared in many places on the Net and is often referred to as the “Eye of God.”

Aliens and Ethics

from Michelangelo's "The Creation of Adam"
from the original poster for E.T.

I think I may have started considering alien ethics like other people my age while watching episodes of The Twilight Zone as a kid. There’s the one where the earthlings go into an alien spaceship because of a book the aliens showed them titled How To Serve Man. The earthlings see the human race leaping into the future. Unfortunately, the book turns out to be a cookbook. There was another one where the aliens realized that they could get us to defeat ourselves by just making us fearful of aliens so much so that we suspected and attacked each other. Another odd one starring Agnes Morehead had her living in a little cabin under attack by tiny aliens. I rooted for her to smash all of them, only to find at the end of the episode that the Earthlings were the tiny creatures and she was the giant alien.

Aliens were generally the enemy in films and TV of the 1950s-70s. If they did come to Earth to help us, we would inevitably misunderstand their intentions and try to kill them.

I think that Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977 and E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial
in 1982 changed things so that more people started to think those aliens might be more helpful than harmful.

I was catching up on some shows I had recorded this weekend and watched an episode on the Discovery Channel of Stephen Hawking’s Universe. Hawking had always pretty much dismissed aliens, but lately he seems to be more open to the idea. His aliens are not Spielberg aliens.

“If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.”

I found an article in the London Times and another in the New York Times that also got to thinking about Hawking’s latest thoughts.

In the NYT article, Robert Wright (author of Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny ) wonders if Hawking’s conjecture about the motivations of aliens who show no sign of existing might not be “the most untethered thought experiment ever.”

In Nonzero (which takes its name from the non-zero-sum games used in game theory), he points out that historically humans are striving for cooperative, nonzero-sum situations – even if it’s not a part of our biology.

Is it part of alien biology?

Hawking sides more with natural selection which creates organisms that have pretty mean-spirited self-interest.
His alien life forms might be anything from microbes, to simple animals, to beings far more advanced than us. Maybe they will just use Earth for its resources and then move on. That’s a scenario in many science-fiction stories.

And would that be so different from our own human history of conquer, colonize and use up both the natural resources and beings we find there?

Wright references Peter Singer, who has written a number of books on ethics. Singer suggests in his book The Expanding Circle that we have made a lot of moral progress in the ways we treat others. Singer thinks our “expanding circle” of moral concern could go beyond our species. He sees that starting on Earth with all sentient non-humans, as exemplified by animal rights advocates.

I’m hopeful about the progress of humans in this direction. I would think that an alien race that is advanced further along so that they could come to Earth would be more advanced on the moral scale too.

Those Spielberg movies had a big impact on my alien thinking – but those childhood scares from The Twilight Zone still have a hold on part of me.