Changes in American Attitudes Toward Animals May Reflect Concern for Animal Welfare

September 29, 2016
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM, ELS

Dr. Walden received her doctorate in veterinary medicine from North Carolina State University. She is a practicing veterinarian and a certified editor in the life sciences (ELS). She owns Walden Medical Writing, LLC, and writes and edits materials for healthcare professionals and the general public.

Changes in public attitudes toward animals over time could indicate increasing concern for animal welfare.

Changes in public attitudes toward animals over time could indicate increasing concern for animal welfare, say the authors of a study published in Biological Conservation.

In a comparison of surveys conducted in the United States in 1978 and 2014, researchers found that attitudes toward selected animal species were mostly similar. However, six species (bats, sharks, vultures, rats, wolves, and coyotes) were viewed much more favorably in 2014. Raccoons and swans were viewed less favorably.

The 1978 survey was funded by the US Fish and Wildlife Service to study “the American public’s fundamental attitudes, perceptions and understandings of animals.” The survey of over 3000 people included 33 species of wild and domestic animals, not including livestock used in agricultural production. The most liked species were dogs, horses, swans, robins, and butterflies. The least liked were cockroaches, mosquitoes, and rats.

Researchers from The Ohio State University performed another survey in 2014 to investigate whether attitudes had changed over the decades. This survey, which included 26 species, was conducted online and yielded 1287 responses. In this survey, the most liked animal was again the dog, followed by the butterfly, eagle, horse, and robin. The mosquito was the least favorably viewed, followed very closely by the cockroach. The rat was again the third most disliked animal.

The authors speculate that attitudes toward some “historically stigmatized” species, such as sharks and rats, may have improved with increased public attention from science-oriented television programming or publicized accounts of mistreatment. The reasons for the decreased favorability ratings of raccoons and swans are unknown, but the authors suggest that urbanization has increased human-raccoon conflict, possibly affecting attitudes toward raccoons.

“To the extent that these attitudinal indicators represent concern for animals generally, these data suggest that concern for animal welfare could be increasing in the United States,” write the authors. They theorize that attitudes toward wildlife are shifting from a “domination” orientation focusing on mastery to a “mutualist” orientation focusing on caretaking.

The 1978 survey revealed a general dislike of predator species; for example, wolves and coyotes were ranked 21st and 22nd, respectively, out of 33 species. In 2014, wolves and coyotes were ranked 13th and 14th, respectively, out of 26 species. These results reflect respondents’ more favorable attitudes toward these species (42% and 47% more respondents reported positive attitudes toward wolves and coyotes, respectively, in 2014 than in 1978). Previous studies cited by the authors found that living in urban areas, as compared with living in rural areas, is associated both with more favorable attitudes toward wolves and a more mutualist orientation toward animals.

Increasing urbanization and global population growth could create conflict with efforts to improve wildlife conservation and the welfare of companion and agricultural production animals, write the authors. “Shifts in attitudes toward animals, as well as concern for animal welfare generally, are likely to impact how societies negotiate the trade-offs between conservation, agricultural productivity and animal welfare in the future,” they conclude.

Dr. Laurie Anne Walden received her doctorate in veterinary medicine from North Carolina State University. After an internship in small animal medicine and surgery at Auburn University, she returned to North Carolina, where she has been in small animal primary care practice for over 20 years. Dr. Walden is also a board-certified editor in the life sciences and owner of Walden Medical Writing, LLC.