It's Complicated: Meet Dr. Hal Herzog
What is your relationship with animals?
It is a harder question to answer than you might originally think. Whatever your answer may be, it is most likely to be both justified yet contradictory in some way. Our relationship with the natural world around us is complicated to say the least. Dr. Hal Herzog is one prominent researcher in the human-animal bond field taking a hard look at the relationships humans share with animals. He is a Professor of Psychology at Western Carolina University with a focus in people and their ethical relationship with animals. He was kind enough to take time out of his day and answer a few questions with HABRI Central.
Dr. Herzog has been in the human-animal bond field for a long time. He attributes that focus to a life-changing conference he attended on human-animal interactions in 1986 while on a sabbatical at the University of Tennessee. He was impressed with the discussion on the human-animal bond and found he had psychological questions he wanted to explore within the field. He had always been fascinated by animals, but it was questions like why different people had different pets that led him to change his focus to human-animal relationships. He wanted to know why certain people chose snakes instead of dogs, or why particular dog breeds were more popular than others.
His animal bond focus turned to ethical dilemmas while writing his doctoral dissertation. He studied people involved with cockfighting and was shocked when they didn’t conform to the expected stereotypes. He explained how these were generally nice people involved in a sport commonly regarded as animal cruelty, but they didn’t see it that way. In their own way, these people developed a relationship with their gamecocks and “developed a set of wacky justifications” for their behavior. This study of cockfighting later led Dr. Herzog to think on general issues such as how people justify eating animals or conducting animal research. In short, it gets complicated.
However, the fact that there are complications shows the presence of a bond shared between human and animals. Dr. Herzog discussed how the ethical dilemmas faced by people who work within the human-animal field give evidence that such a bond exists. He spoke about reports of lab animal technicians kidnapping test animals and keeping them as pets, or veterinarians who have to judge what is ethically best for both of their human and non-human clients. There is a connection that people have with the animals they are working with that sometimes contradicts the work they are doing.
An Individual, Unique Bond
Dr. Herzog is a psychologist with an interest in the development of the human-animal bond. He shared how it is a deep and important relationship for humans where animals can become an important focus in our lives. However, he also noted that the bond exists outside of pets and companion animals. Dr. Herzog likes to look at the varying animal relationships that are not usually considered, but are also important in understanding the extent of the human-animal bond.
Dr. Herzog has studied hunters, animal rights activists, and is currently investigating circus animal trainers. All have developed distinct animal relationships, but there are varied justifications and behaviors within that bond that speak to our culture and societal expectations.
This line of ethical questioning has led Dr. Herzog to believe that the human-animal bond is much more complicated than it often seems. There are multiple factors at play that lead to varied levels of bond attachment. Pet temperament, consumer health, happiness, and pet attachment were all aspects that Dr. Herzog mentioned as an influence on the human-animal bond.
According to Dr. Herzog, the human-animal bond is not as universal. For example, in some cultures, pets do not exist. He explained how the bond is dependent on pet attachment and has a spectrum that influences healthy, but sometimes unhealthy behaviors as well.
He is continually surprised by the findings in his work and the cultural relevance involved in the human animal bond. Previous studies he has been involved with have observed how the decision-making process involved in the use of animals in research is inconsistent and contradictory. He further expanded on the moral inconsistencies people give in their relationships to animals, particularly in terms of eating habits. He has also noticed that dog breeds have changing popularities depending on cultural changes. The relationship held between humans and animals is influenced by many factors that sometimes give surprising results and varied justifications.
A Growing Field of Study
The most rewarding aspect of Dr. Herzog’s work has been his opportunity to hang out with animal people from all walks of life. The people he has interviewed come from a variety of backgrounds, but all exhibit a dedication to the animals they are working with. He is fascinated by the interdisciplinary aspect of the human-animal bond and the various perspectives that emerge from the field. Furthermore, he has found his efforts at communicating with the public a personally rewarding experience through his articles, blog, and public speaking events.
Dr. Herzog has been a part of the human-animal bond field nearly from the beginning and thinks the field is in a healthy place right now. He is pleased at the explosion of interest that has emerged in the last ten years and thinks it is a field of critical importance and relevance in our society. He cited how almost 2/3 of American homes have some kind of animal as a pet.
The biggest need in the field right now is funding. He mentioned how government agencies, such as the National Institute of Health (NIH), are now offering grant opportunities. Dr. Herzog is excited at the prospect because he believes these funds are drawing excellent researchers into the field that in turn are developing quality studies.
Dr. Herzog is currently involved in a ten year study with circus animal trainers that examines their relationship with the various exotic animals they work with day to day. He shared how it is a unique bond because they have tremendous knowledge and connection with the animals they train, yet the use of animals in circuses has raised serious ethical issues.