America is becoming a kinder, gentler place (toward animals, anyway)

Extraordinary as it might seem amidst the election-season rancor, the United States is becoming a gentler, more inclusive place—at least toward wild animals.

Nearly 40 years ago, ecologist Stephen Kellert conducted a landmark survey of American attitudes toward wildlife. Now researchers have repeated the survey; they found that people in the U.S. generally feel more kindly toward wild animals, in particular those species they once despised.

“The greatest differences were for historically stigmatized species,” wrote the researchers, who were led by environmental scientist Kelly George of Ohio State University and published their findings in the journal Biological Conservation. Among the up-and-comers are sharks, bats, vultures, wolves, and coyotes.

Much has changed since Kellert’s original 1978 survey. The loss of biodiversity has accelerated—not just the extinction of rare species, but the decline of once-common ones. More Americans live in cities and suburbs, where they’re ostensibly disconnected from nature. The science of animal cognition has produced overwhelming evidence for intelligence throughout the animal kingdom, and animal welfare went from a fringe to a mainstream concern.

The latter trend has raised hopes that, if people like animals more, they’ll do more for conservation—and in that regard, the new results are promising. Where people had, on average, felt neutral towards wolves and coyotes, they now feel positive. Sharks, bats, and vultures all vaulted from disliked to neutral or even liked. People are even a bit more welcoming to wasps, rattlesnakes, and rats.

The only species whose reputations dropped substantively are raccoons and swans, though people still quite like them. (For the record, domestic dogs remained America’s most-favored animal, while mosquitos replaced cockroaches as the least-liked.)

That it’s not only the usual charismatic fauna tugging public heartstrings is promising—and, noted the researchers, this change in attitudes is specific to wildlife. Attitudes toward domestic animals didn’t change substantively. It’s not as though wild animals are benefiting from the overflow of a change in heart toward, say, cats and dogs. Something deeper is happening.

George’s team doesn’t claim to understand the exact reasons for this change of heart. They do, however, point to research by social psychologist Michael Manfredo, who has found that Americans are shifting away from an ethos of domination and mastery over nature, instead viewing wildlife “as part of an extended family, and deserving of caring and compassion.”

The trick, says study co-author Jeremy Bruskotter, a conservation policy expert at Ohio State University, will be finding a way to tap into this burgeoning concern. At the state level, most conservation funds still come from sales of hunting, fishing, and trapping licenses.

“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 says. “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.” —Brandon Keim | 3 August 2016

Source: George et al. “Changes in attitudes toward animals in the United States from 1978 to 2014.” Biological Conservation, 2016. doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2016.07.013

Image: Biologist holds little brown bat, ©USFWS/Ann Froschauer