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Pet ownership in childhood: its influence on attitudes towards animals

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Pet ownership in childhood: its influence on attitudes towards animals

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Animal Welfare 1993, 2: 321-337 A questionnaire survey of 385 UK-based university students was used to investigate whether there was an association between pet keeping in childhood and humane attitudes in young adulthood. Subjects gave detailed, retrospective reports of the pets they had kept during their childhoods, and a variety of attitude scales and open-ended questions were used to measure their current attitudes concerning the welfare of both animals and humans. Higher levels of childhood pet keeping were related to more positive attitudes towards pet animals and greater concerns about the welfare of non-pet animals and humans. Ethical food avoidance practices (eg vegetarianism); membership of animal welfare and environmental organizations were also found to be associated with pet keeping during childhood. Knowledge of the experiences that underlie existing variation in humane attitudes will greatly assist the development of more effective humane education programmes in the future.
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CHILDHOOD PET KEEPING AND HUMANE ATTITUDES
IN YOUNG ADULTHOOD
E S Paul
1t
and
J
A Serpe1l
2
Companion Animal Research Group, Department of Clinical Veterinary Medicine,
University of Cambridge, UK
1
Present address: Department of Psychology, University of Edinburgh, 7 George Square,
Edinburgh EH8 9JZ, UK
2Present address: University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, USA
t
Contact for correspondence and requests for reprints
Abstract Animal Welfare 1993, 2: 321-337
A questionnaire survey of
385
UK-based university students was used to investigate
whether there was an association betweenpet keeping in childhood and humane attitudes
inyoung adulthood. Subjects gave detailed, retrospective reports of the pets they had
kept during their childhoods, and a variety of attitude scales and open-ended questions
were used to measure their current attitudes concerning the welfare of both animals and
humans. Higher levels of childhood pet keeping were related to more positive attitudes
towards pet animals and greater concerns about the welfare of non-pet animals and
humans. Ethical food avoidance practices (eg vegetarianism); membership of animal
welfare and environmental organizations were also found to be associated with pet
keeping during childhood. Knowledge of the experiences that underlie existing variation
in humane attitudes will greatly assist the development of more effective humane
educationprogrammes in thefuture.
Keywords: animal welfare, childhood, empathy, humane attitudes, pet keeping,
questionnaire
Introduction
Data presented in this paper come from a questionnaire survey of university students in
which subjects were asked to report retrospectively on their childhood histories of pet
ownership, as well as their current attitudes to animals. The information collected from
students in this survey was designed to investigate the possibility that childhood
involvement with pets is associated with the development of more humane attitudes in
later life. That is, more positive adult attitudes towards - and empathy with - pet animals,
other animals and human beings.
This idea has a long historical pedigree (Serpell
&
Paul in press). Locke (1699), one
of the founders of modem educational theory, advocated the keeping of pets by children
© 1993 Universities Federation for Animal Welfare
Animal Welfare
1993, 2: 321-337 321
Paul and Serpell
in order to encourage the development of tender feelings towards animals and people
alike. Towards the end of the last century, the notion that childhood pet keeping was
causally related to humane attitudes came to particular prominence when it was adopted
as a central tenet of the humane education movement (Finch 1989). Since then, school-
based humane education programmes have been practised on the basis of this idea,
despite equivocal findings from the few studies that have attempted to measure their
efficacy (eg Vockell
&
Hodal 1980, Ascione 1992). Nowadays, many parents also
express the firm belief that caring for pets in childhood encourages respect for all kinds
of animals, and instils a more caring nature in general (Macdonald 1981, Salomon 1981,
Paul 1992).
The idea that caring for pets in childhood will help to inculcate a greater respect and
empathy for pet animals is a reasonably plausible one. Childhood pet keeping is
positively correlated with adult pet ownership levels (Serpe11 1981) and therefore,
presumably, with positive attitudes towards pets during adulthood (see also Poresky et
a/
1988). The further idea of a relationship existing between childhood pet ownership
and adult attitudes to other kinds of animals, however, has received very little research
attention, although Bowd (1984b) found that during childhood, pet ownership was
associated with more positive attitudes to a number of non-pet animals, such as lions,
pigs, chickens and snakes. The idea that learning to care for pet animals during
childhood may lead to a greater concern for, or emotional empath~ with,
humans
in
adulthood is pemaps particularly ambitious. It has nevertheless received at least some
support from research looking at the relationship between pet ownership and empathy
during childhood itself. Poresky and Hendrix (1988), for example, found that three to
six-year-old, pet owning children achieved higher empathy scores than their non-pet
owning counterparts. Bryant (1986) found that ten-year-old children who used pets for
social support when stressed had higher empathy scores than those who did not. Bailey
(1988), on the other hand, found no differences between pet owning and non-pet owning
pre-schoolers, using a role-taking task as a test of empathy. She did, however, find that
exposing the same children to a puppy within the pre-school curriculum significantly
increased scores on the same empathy test.
Methods
Subjects and procedure
The childhood pet ownership questionnaire (see opposite), with accompanying letter and
prepaid return envelope, was circulated to approximately 1,200 students in three
University of Cambridge colleges, one of which was solely attended by postgraduates.
Four-hundred and twenty questionnaires were completed and returned, representing a 35
per cent response rate. Although this is a reasonable response rate for a relatively long
1
As opposed to cognitive empathy which is simply the recognition of another's state of
emotion rather than any vicarious experience of that person's actual emotion.
322
Animal
Welfare
1993, 2: 321-337
Pets and humane attitudes
and unsolicited questionnaire, the sample does suffer the disadvantage of being a self-
selected population. Nevertheless, a complete range of pet owning and non-pet owning
subjects responded (54% reported pets of their own during childhood and 88% reported
family pets) which suggests that the self-selection process did not result in any major
biases due to subjects' pet keeping experiences. Thirty-five questionnaires completed by
non-Western nationals were excluded from the present analysis (ie 8.3% of completed
questionnaires), in order to avoid problems associated with cultural differences in attitudes
towards and ownership of pet animals. This left a sample of 230 men and 155 women,
of British (91%), other European (4%) and other Western (5%) nationalities. The sexes
and nationalities of respondents were representative of the college populations surveyed.
The mean age of the subjects was 22.2 years (this is relatively high due to survey of
students from the postgraduate college and mature students).
Questionnaire
In the first part of the questionnaire, subjects were asked to give information concerning
all the pets that they and their families had owned during their childhoods (0-16 years).
Seven categories of pet were distinguished: a) horses, ponies or donkeys; b) dogs; c)
cats; d) small mammals; e) birds; f) fish, reptiles, amphibians, insects, spiders etc; g)
other pets. Subjects were also asked to list any of these pets which they considered to
have been important to them in some way during childhood. Data from these questions
were used to create the independent variables listed below.
In the second part of the questionnaire, subjects were required to answer a number of
questions and complete attitude scales aimed at finding out about their current attitudes
towards pets, other animals and human beings. These were used as dependent variables
in the analysis and are also described in the section below.
Copies of the original questionnaire are available from the first author upon request.
Data and analyses
Independent variables
It has been noted (eg Poresky et a11987, Melson 1989, 1990) that many empirical studies
of pet ownership have been blighted by over-simplified classification of subjects as, for
example, either pet owners or non-pet owners. The retrospective approach used in this
study offered an opportunity to assess the whole of a subject's childhood pet experiences
in a more detailed way. Data from the first part of the questionnaire were used to create
three separate, although not mutually exclusive, measures of subjects' overall levels of
childhood pet involvement. These were used as independent variables for the purposes
of the present analyses:
Pets owned
The number of pets owned specifically by the subject, ie not by other members of the
family or by the family as a whole, during childhood. (NB For the purposes of this and
the following category, multiple fish, reptiles, amphibians, insects, spiders etc were
counted as equivalent to one pet per sub-category of animal).
Animal Welfare
1993, 2: 321-337 323
Paul and Serpell
Family pets owned
The total number of pets owned in the subject's family during childhood (this included
pets owned by the subject, by siblings, by parents and by the family as a whole).
Important pets
The number of pets reported as having been important to the subject in some way during
childhood (these pets could have belonged to any member of the family). Data for this
variable were obtained by asking subjects to list any pets owned by themselves or their
family that had been important to them in some way during childhood.
Dependent variables
The second part of the questionnaire consisted of questions and attitude scales designed
to assess subjects' attitudes towards pets, other animals and other human beings. These
were used as dependent variables for the present analyses:
Animal-related involvements
These were a series of questions concerning: what pets were currently owned and what
pets subjects would like to own in the future; whether or not subjects would encourage
their own future children to keep pets; whether subjects took part in any animal-related
hobbies or activities (fishing, hunting, horse-riding and bird-watching); whether subjects
were members of animal welfare or environmental organizations or charities; whether
subjects practised any sorts of ethical food avoidances such as vegetarianism.
Attitude scales
1. Pet Attitude Scale (Templer
et al
1981). This aimed to measure a person's
'favorableness of attitudes towards pets' in general. Higher scores represented more
favourable attitudes towards pets.
2. Scale of Attitudes Towards the Treatment of Animals. A modified, updated and
Anglicized. scale from Bowd (1984a). This modified version fulfilled statistical
conventions of validity and reliability in the student population surveyed. Three sub-
scales were included; these concerned attitudes towards the treatment of a) farm, b)
wild and c) laboratory animals. Higher scores on all these scales represented greater
concern about the welfare and treatment of animals.
3. Empathy Scale (Mehrabian
&
Epstein 1972). This was designed to measure emotional
empathy as defined as 'a vicarious emotional response to the perceived emotional
experiences of others'. Higher scores represented greater empathy with other human
beings2For the purposes of the present analyses, scores from the two pet animal
empathy questions of the scale were excluded.
2It is interesting that Mehrabian and Epstein included statements concerning pet animals in their
emotional empathy scale. This suggests that they assumed pet and human empathy to be aspects ofthe same
underlying construct. The fact that these two pet-based statements achieved reliability and validity within
their scale, suggests that pet and human empathy are likely to be related, at least to some degree.
324 Animal Welfare 1993, 2: 321-337
Pets and humaneattitudes
Charity donations test
Subjects were asked to indicate how they would distribute £100 among eight different
hypothetical charities. Two of these charities were concerned with animal welfare, two
with conservation of the natural environment and four with human health and welfare.
Analyses and presentation of results
Non-normality of the pet ownership and involvement data (both before and after
transformations) and the ordinal nature of the data available from the attitude scales,
meant that the assumptions needed to perform parametric statistics were not fully met
(see Snedecor
&
Cochran 1976). All statistical analyses were therefore conducted using
non-parametric, two-tailed tests (Chi-squares, Kendall correlations, Kruskal-Wallis one-
way analyses of variance and Mann-Whitney
U
tests). Because of this, the figures
presented in this paper take the form of frequency histograms and box and whisker plots
(ie showing medians, 25th and 75th percentiles and maximum and minimum points).
One exception to this is Figure 8, showing the donations of male and female subjects in
the charity donations test. Because of a large number of ties in these data (subjects
tended to allocate their donations in £10 lots), box and whisker plots were not
informative, and the data have been illustrated by histograms using means and standard
error bars.
Results
Animal-related involvements
The number of pets that subjects listed aswanting to own in the future (as students, most
of them were unable to keep pets currently) was significantly positively correlated with
the number of pets owned during childhood (Kendall's
T=
0.1973,
P<O.OOl);
the number
of pets owned by subjects' families as a whole during childhood
(T
=
0.2545,
P<O.OOI),
and the number of important childhood pets they reported having had (T
=
0.3834,
P<O.OOl).
Subjects who said they would encourage their own future children to keep
pets were found to have had significantly more pets of their own during childhood
(Mann-Whitney
U
=
7033,
P<0.0005;
see Figure 1)3; more family pets
(U
=
5197.0,
P<O.OOOl),
and more important pets
(U
=
4290.0,
P<O.OOOl)
than those who did not.
Subjects who reported regularly going fishing were not significantly different in their
childhood pet involvements from those who did not regularly fish. Hunters and bird-
watchers, however, both owned more pets (specifically of their own) during childhood
than their non-hunting and non-bied-watching counterparts
(U
=
914.5,
P<0.05;
and
U
=
2545.5, P<0.05
respectively).
3NB Sample sizes vary between figures according to the number of subjects who answered or
completed each particular question or attitude scale. For example, the sample in Figure 1 is particularly
small (n
=
356) because a number of subjects stated that they did not anticipate having children of their own
in the future.
Animal Welfare
1993, 2: 321-337 325
Paul and Serpell
78
o
o
2
No of
Pets owned
Percentage of subjects who would encourage their own future
children to keep pets. plotted against the numbers of
Pets owned
during childhood (n is indicated above each bar).
Figure 1
"5
7
o
23456
No of
Family pets owned
Percentage of subjects who currently belong to animal welfare
organizations or charities. plotted against the number of
Family pets
owned
during childhood
(n
is indicated above each bar).
Figure 2
Figure 3
o
2 345 6 7 ~
No of
Family pets owned
Percentage of subjects who currently belong to environmental
organizations or charities. plotted against the number of
Family pets
owned
during childhood
(n
is indicated above each bar).
326
Animal Welfare
1993. 2: 321-337
Pets and humane attitudes
Current horse-riders, when compared with non-riders, showed greater childhood
involvement with pets on all three measures considered
(Pets owned, U
=
3106.0,
P<O.OOOI;Family pets owned, U
=
3237.0,
P<O.OOOI;Important pets, U
=
4089.0,
P<0.0005).
Members of organizations or charities concerned with animal welfare reported having
had more pets of their own
(U
=
8618.0,
P<0.005);
more family pets
(U
=
7293.0,
P<O.OOOI;
see Figure 2), and more important pets
(U
=
8004.0,
P<0.005)
during their
childhood than non-members. Similarly, members of organizations or charities concerned
with conservation and the environment reported more family pets
(U
=
13626.0,
P<0.05;
see Figure 3) and more important pets than non-members
(U
=
13486.5,
P<0.05).
However, when the sample was split by sex, this latter relationship held for male subjects
only
(Family pets owned, U
=
4543.5.
P<0.05; Important pets. U
=
4467.5,
P<0.05).
Subjects who currently avoided eating at least one type of animal-based food product
for ethical or moral reasons (eg vegans; vegetarians; those who do not eat veal, battery
eggs etc) reported having had more pets of their own during childhood
(U
=
13848.0.
P<0.05),
although this association was found to apply only to female subjects
(U
=
2310.5, P<0.05)
when the sample was split by sex. This may be explained in part by the
fact the female subjects were considerably more likely than males to report some kind
of food avoidance practice4(Females 42.5%, Males 26.3%, X2
=
10.14,
P<0.005).
However, both male and female food avoiders reported having had more important pets
(U
=
12030.5,
P<0.0005;
see Figure 4) during childhood than non-food avoiding subjects.
71
o
1 2
No of Important pets
Percentage of subjects who currently avoid eating one or more
animal-based food products for ethical or moral reasons, plotted
against the number of Important pets owned in childhood (n is
indicated above each bar).
Figure 4
4The predominance of women in the vegetarian movement has been noted and discussed by
a number of commentators (eg Adams 1990, Herzog
et aI199I).
Animal Welfare
1993, 2: 321-337 327
Paul and Serpell
Attitude scales
Table 1 gives a full summary of the results of correlations between the pet involvement
measures and the three attitude scales administered.
Table 1 Kendall correlations between attitude scale scores and the number
of Pets owned during childhood; number of Family pets owned, and
number of Important pets kept during childhood.
Kendall correlation
(T)
Attitude scale Pets owned Family pets Important
owned pets
1)
Pet Attitude Scale 0.1723**** 0.2279**** 0.4190****
2)
Scale of Attitudes Towards the
Treatment of Animals 0.0846* 0.1083*** 0.2604****
a) Farm animals 0.0813* 0.0888* 0.2320****
b) Wild animals 0.0967* 0.0685* 0.2184****
c)
Laboratory animals 0.0518 0.1117*** 0.2024****
3)
Empathy Scale 0.1134*** 0.08%* 0.1421****
*P<0.05; ***P<0.005; ****P<O.OOl
Current attitudes towards pets, as measured by the Pet Attitude Scale (Templer et al
1981) were significantly positively correlated with pet ownership, family pet ownership
and number of important pets reported as having been kept during childhood (Figure 5).
180 81
28 2S
18
lOB
~
122
0
150
$
$~~
C,)
'"
<II
-=
120
~
<II
"0
90
.:
"B
<:
-
60
<II
l:l..
30 02
3
4
5+
No of Important pets
Figure 5 Pet Attitude Scale scores plotted against the number of Important
pets owned in childhood.
Medians, upper and lower quartiles and maximum and minimum scores are shown; nis
indicated above each box.
328
Animal Welfare
1993, 2: 321-337
Pets and humane attitudes
Total scores on the Scale of Attitudes Towards the Treatment of Animals (modified
from Bowd 1984a) were significantly and positively correlated with levels of childhood
pet ownership, family pet ownership and the number of important childhood pets (see
Figure 6). Scores on the sub-scales concerning the treatment of farm and wild animals
showed significant positive correlations with all three pet involvement measures, while
attitudes towards the treatment of laboratory animals were significantly correlated with
the number of family pets owned and the number of important pets owned, but showed
no relationship with the number of pets owned by subjects themselves during childhood.
121
o
104
81
2
28
3
25
4
17
No of
Important pets
Figure 6 Scale of Attitudes Towards the Treatment of Animals scores plotted
against the number of
Important pets
owned in childhood.
Medians, upper and lower quartiles and maximum and minimum scores are shown; nis
indicated above each box.
Empathy Scale (Mehrabian
&
Epstein 1972) scores were significantly positively
correlated with childhood pet ownership levels, family pet ownership levels and the
number of important pets kept during childhood. However, when the sample was broken
down by sex, these correlations were found only among male subjects (Pets owned, T
=
0.1088, P<0.05; Family pets owned, T
=
0.1096, P<0.05; Important pets, T
=
0.1455,
P<0.005; see Figures 7a, 7b and Discussion).
Charity
d01Ultions test
The amount of money hypothetically donated to animal welfare charities in the charity
test was significantly positively correlated with the number of family pets (T
=
0.1057,
P<O.Ol)
and the number of important childhood pets
(T
=
0.2149,
P<O.OOl)
reported.
Money donated to environmental charities did not correlate significantly with any of the
childhood pet experience measures, but the amount of money donated to human welfare
Animal Welfare
1993, 2: 321-337 329
Paul and Serpell
charities was significantly negatively correlated with the number of important childhood
pets reported, particularly among male subjects
(T
=
-0.0972,
P<0.05;
Men,
T
=
-0.1324,
P<0.05;
Women,
T
=
-0.0410, non-significant).
260
38
12
35
42
17
240
~
~s
e
220
0
~
200
Q)
-
CIS
180
~
160
CIS
140
(:l.,
E
120
~
100
80
o
1 2 3 4 ~
No of
Important pets
Figure 7a Female subjects' Empathy Scale scores plotted against the number
of Important pets owned in childhood.
Medians, upper and lower quartiles and maximum and minimum scores are shown; nis
indicated above each box.
300
280
43
Q)
260
65
5
8
~
240 18
6
Q)
220
~
-
CIS
200
S
~
>.
180
.s
160
CIS
Q.,
140
8
120
~
100
80
o
1 2 3 4 ~
No of Important pets
Figure 7b Male subjects' Empathy Scale scores plotted against the number of
Important pets owned in childhood.
Medians, upper and lower quartiles and maximum and minimum scores are shown; nis
indicated above each box.
330
Animal Welfare
1993, 2: 321-337
Pets and humane attitudes
Figure 8 shows the relationship between the number of important pets owned in
childhood, and donations to each of the three charity types described.
Female subjects
80
---
4a
-
rn 60
§
...•
~
§
40
~
.•..
~.~
rn
$
.e-
20
.~
..c:
U
001
2
3
45+
No of
Important pets
Male subjects
80
---
4a
-
§
60
...•
~
~40
.•..
rn
$
iii
Animal welfare
.e-
20
.~ Human welfare
..c:
Environmental
U
001
2
3
45+
No of
Important pets
Figure 8 Mean sums of money hypothetically donated to animal welfare,
human welfare and environmental conservation charities, plotted
against the number of
Important pets
owned in childhood (error bars
denote one standard error of the mean).
Animal Welfare
1993, 2: 321-337 331
Paul and Serpell
Discussion
Results obtained in this survey tend to· support the view that keeping pet animals in
childhood helps to develop more positive and caring attitudes towards pets in adulthood.
Students' attitudes towards pets were found to be positively correlated with all three of
the childhood pet involvement measures considered (Pets owned, Family pets owned and
Important pets). Likewise, the positive relationship found between childhood pet
ownership and the number and types of pets that subjects reported wanting to own in the
future, seems to confirm previous findings that early experience of pet ownership tends
to set a pattern for adult life (Serpell1981, Poresky et a/1988, Kidd
&
Kidd 1989). The
additional finding of a link between subjects' childhood pet keeping experiences and their
intentions concerning whether or not to encourage their own future children to keep pets
is consistent with the inter-generational continuity of attitudes to pet dogs found by Gage
and Magnuson-Martinson (1988).
The relationship between childhood pet involvement and adult attitudes does not stop
at attitudes towards pets. A positive association was also found between involvement
with pet animals in childhood and self-reported concern about the treatment and welfare
of laboratory, farm and wild animals. This relationship was further confirmed by the
positive association found between childhood pet involvement and ethical food avoidance
practices such as vegetarianism, and the finding that childhood pet involvement was also
positively associated with membership of animal welfare and environmental organizations.
The charity donations test also demonstrated a positive correlation between the amount
of money hypothetically donated to animal welfare charities and childhood involvement
with pets.
The finding that empathy with humans was correlated with childhood pet involvement
is also in keeping with the predictions outlined in the introduction to this paper.
However, the association was weak and was only detected amongst male subjects when
the sample was split by sex. Although this latter result can be explained in large part by
a ceiling effect (the majority of female subjects obtained high scores on the empathy
scale), the fact remains that the association between childhood pet keeping and adult
empathy with humans is able to account for only a very small proportion of the overall
variance in empathy scores. Whether the connection between childhood pet keeping and
adult empathy for human beings is quantitatively or qualitatively different from that found
with adult concern for animals is an important question that has yet to be resolved.
In summary, the results presented here demonstrate that more humane adult attitudes,
towards both animals and people, are indeed associated with higher levels of reported
childhood pet ownership. Moreover, those subjects who reported having had important
childhood pets were particularly likely to express more humane attitudes in adulthood.
The data also suggest that childhood pet involvement may be related to heightened
environmental concerns in adulthood. As yet, however, these findings shed little light
on the causal relationships underlying these statistical associations.
The self-selected nature of the survey population means that certain groups, such as
those with little experience of childhood pet keeping, might have been under-represented
332
Animal Welfare
1993, 2: 321-337
Pets and humane attitudes
in the sample. However, the generally broad range found in the number of childhood
pets owned by subjects suggests that no major biases were operating in this respect (see
sample sizes in Figures 1 and 2). Perhaps a more important problem concerns the above
average socio-economic status and educational level of the students surveyed. Data
obtained from students at a prestigious university cannot be assumed to be applicable to
the wider population. Replication of this study amongst a representative sample is needed
before firm conclusions can be drawn concerning its more general relevance.
Nevertheless, previous studies have shown that socio-economic status exhibits neither a
strong nor consistent association with overall pet ownership levels (eg Godwin 1975,
Franti et al1980, Wise
&
Kushman 1984, Marx et alI988). There is, therefore, no a
priori reason for expecting the sampled population to differ significantly from the norm
in terms of any relationship between childhood pet keeping and adult attitudes.
The fact that the data used here relied on retrospective reporting of childhood
experiences and feelings also means that the present findings need to be interpreted with
some caution. Subjects may have been inaccurate or selective in their recollections of
childhood pets, although this seems unlikely to have been a major or widespread problem,
since no respondents indicated having any difficulties remembering what pets were
owned, and by whom, during childhood. Memories concerning what childhood pets were
important, however, concern the recall of feelings and may therefore be especially
vulnerable to bias. For example, the sort of person who is willing to admit that they had
pets that were important to them during childhood, may also be more likely to respond
sensitively and empathetically to questions on the attitude scales. This argument is
unlikely to apply, however, to responses to more factual questions concerning
membership of animal welfare or environmental organizations, vegetarianism, and so on.
In addition, subsequent analysis showed that the majority of pets nominated as important
were either cats or dogs (see Paul 1992) suggesting that something about the actual
quality
of the relationship that can be developed with certain types of pet may play a
considerable part in determining whether or not a childhood companion animal is
remembered as having been important.
With these various provisos in mind, we can suggest a range of possible explanations
for the present findings. First, it is conceivable that the results were affected by subjects'
preconceptions regarding the benefits of pet ownership. For example, a number of the
students who took part in the survey reported believing that childhood pet ownership
encourages 'respect for animals' and a 'caring' nature in general (see Paul 1992).
Subjects who personally held such beliefs may therefore have responded to the
questionnaire in an 'appropriate' manner. Subjects may also have responded in such a
way as to give the investigator what they perceived to be the 'right' answers. Potential
biases of this kind, however, are unlikely to have affected answers to more factual
questions concerning, say, membership of organizations or vegetarianism.
Second, it is possible that the present findings are largely a product of parental
attitudes. Research on other topics suggests that certain attitudes, such as political and
religious orientation, are transmitted from parents to their children (eg see Oskamp 1977).
Animal Welfare 1993, 2: 321-337 333
Paul and Serpell
Likewise, the sorts of parents who encourage their children to have pets and to perceive
them as important may also be the kinds of parents who would be keen on inculcating
kindness and sympathy towards both animal and human others. This explanation,
however, begs the question as to why this particular constellation of attitudes and
behaviour existed in the parents to begin with. Unfortunately, it was not possible to
measure parental attitudes to animals or other people directly in the present study.
However, the relationship between parents' and children's attitudes to animals and
animal-related issues represents a potentially fruitful area for future research.
Third, it may be that some people are essentially predisposed to be more animal-
orientated than others, and that this personality trait is relatively stable throughout an
individual's development. Young adults who identify strongly with animals now, may
also have been more animal-orientated as children, and hence more likely to report more
important childhood pets. They may also have been more effective in childhood at
influencing the purchase of more interesting and important pets such as dogs and cats.
This idea would not, however, explain why such people tend also to score higher on a
human empathy scale, unless of course a direct link between animal orientation and
overall empathetic tendencies could be postulated. Nevertheless, since both children and
adults vary considerably in their overall liking for animals, work investigating the
possible endogenous sources of such variation is likely to prove valuable in the future.
Finally, it is possible that the humane educationalists are substantially correct, and that
childhood relationships with pets do indeed have a direct formative influence on the
development of humane attitudes. The mechanism by which such an effect might be
operating still remains to be elucidated, although one could postulate a process of
generalization from particular feelings towards individual pets to a more global concern
for animals as a group. Even then, however, it is not at all clear how such a process
could include empathy with humans, unless one proposes some sort of general
identification or sympathy with vulnerable individuals, regardless of species (see eg ten
Bensel 1984). Further research, focusing on the ways in which people structure their
beliefs about the welfare of both animals and people, should offer some valuable insights
into the processes underlying the development of humane and animal welfare orientated
attitudes.
Conclusions
It is evident that public opinion is the all-important driving force for improvements in
animal welfare at both an individual and societal level. Although humane education has
been directed for many years towards improving people's (and particularly children's)
concerns about the welfare of animals, recent research has revealed that such work is
considerably less successful that had originally been hoped (Ascoine 1992). The main
problem seems to be a simple lack of understanding of the processes by which humane
attitudes develop. As Bowd (1989) pointed out, 'if we are to change the way people
behave towards animals, we must first learn about the origins of that behaviour in
childhood'. Although the present study can give no definitive answers in this respect, it
334
Animal
Welfare
1993, 2: 321-337
Pets and humaneattitudes
has provided further evidence of a possible link between childhood experience of animals
and the development of subsequent adult attitudes towards both animals and fellow
humans. It has also opened up a number of potentially fruitful avenues of future
research.
For many children, companion animals become honorary family members and it is
difficult to imagine how such early and significant bonds could fail to engender at least
some sense of kinship or affinity with other non-human species. The precise causal
mechanisms underlying the process of generalization from individual pets to animals as
a group are as yet unclear, and further research is needed to improve our understanding
of the relevant developmental processes involved. The information gained from such
studies is likely to assist programmes of humane education to become better focused and
more effective in the future.
Animal welfare implications
Future improvements in the welfare of animals depend crucially on the attitudes and
beliefs of society - this includes the animal users as well as the general public. Yet
almost nothing is known about the reasons why some people feel great concern about the
welfare of animals while others appear largely indifferent to such issues. Knowledge of
the experiences that underlie existing variation in humane attitudes will greatly assist the
development of more effective humane education programmes in the future.
Acknowledgements
The authors thank Spillers Foods Ltd and the Commission of the European Communities
for their financial support. They are also grateful to the Eurogroup for Animal Welfare
and to various individuals, especially Caroline Vodden, Jeff Tossell, Edward Rowe, John
Delap and, of course, the many Cambridge students who kindly participated in the study.
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