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Who you gonna save? The puppy or the babe?

Last night I met my cousin’s new puppy. She weighs three pounds, often gets tired from walking just a few feet, and makes the tiniest little grunting sounds when she plays tug-o-war. Cradling her on my arm, my heart was melting. It practically broke in two at the sound of her little body flopping on the floor when she tripped or decided to take a rest. Just four and half years ago I had a similar little creature running around my apartment, just as precious, only curlier and blonder:

When Ledley was a puppy he slept next to my bed and I would stare at him as I fell asleep, his fluffy little belly rising and falling in complete peace. When he cried from his crate because he was scared and lonely, being away from his littermates for the first time ever, I thought I might drop dead from guilt. You’d think the effect would have worn off by now, but that’s just not the case.

No, even though he’s practically as old as me in dog years (whatever those are), he still elicits just as much love and affection from me and pretty much everyone else he meets. In fact, we once overheard a muscle-man say to his companion, “Doesn’t that dog look like something from the Build-A-Bear workshop?”

It’s not hard to figure out why adult humans are so empathic toward our own babies. Since they can’t take care of themselves, we’ve got to do it in order for our species to survive the ages. But a new study from Northeastern professors Jack Levin and Arnold Arluke suggests that we have nearly as much empathy for puppies and adult dogs as we do for the cuddly miniatures of our own species. On the other hand, the researchers’ results showed a significantly lower level of empathy for adult humans.

Arluke and Levin, whose research interests are in the areas of animals and society and extreme violence, respectively, asked 240 sociology and anthropology students between the ages of 18 and 25 to read a fictitious newspaper article that they thought was real. Each participant was randomly assigned one of four versions of the article, which read thus:

October 16th, 2010: BOSTON — after a noticeable increase of attacks against residents of certain Boston neighborhoods, Police Commissioner Davis has assigned a larger law enforcement presence to certain crime “hotspots” around the City. Last week, police investigators documented a total of 11 attacks on residents of the South End alone. One assault involved a one-year-old infant who was beaten by an unknown assailant. Arriving on the scene a few minutes after the attack, a police officer reported there were no life-threatening injuries to the victim. No arrests have been made in the case.

Some participants got this exact story, but three quarters of them weren’t reading about an assault on an infant, but rather, a puppy, a six-year-old dog, or a 30-year-old adult. The researchers then asked the students to indicate their level of different emotions using a scale from one to seven. Their responses were then collected into an overall empathy score, ranging from 7 to 112, where higher numbers mean more empathy.

As you’ve probably guessed by now, puppies and dogs generated pretty much the same amount of empathy, which was only slightly lower than that felt for human babies. But that 30-year-old? The students could pretty much care less about the adult. “It appears that adult humans are viewed as capable of protecting themselves while full grown dogs are just seen as larger puppies,” said Levin. Yep, I’d say that’s true when it comes to Ledley. What would he do without me and his pop? What would he eat? Where would he sleep? And who would give him his heart worm medicine?!

But the nuances in the results surprised Levin and Arluke. While many other studies and anecdotal evidence have previously demonstrated that people have more empathy for dogs and other animals than we do for our own species, it turns out that relationship is a little more complicated with respect to age. “Contrary to popular thinking, we are not necessarily more disturbed by animal rather than human suffering,” said Levin. “Our results indicate a much more complex situation with respect to the age and species of victims, with age being the more important component.”

Levin and Arluke plan to continue examining the link between human violence and animal cruelty, a topic they’ve been exploring together for some time. One remaining question is whether the dog’s breed would make a difference in the results. Are we more empathic toward dogs in general, or do labradoodles and cairn terriers elicit a different response than bulldogs and bloodhounds?

A flood of media coverage followed the study’s findings, which Levin and Arluke presented at the 108th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association last week. I’ve counted more than 20 separate online news stories about the findings; everyone from Fox News Radio to USA Today to the Mother Nature Network seems to be interested. I asked Levin what he thought that might be about. Here’s what he said:

Media coverage probably reflects the same factors involved in the reaction of our subjects to the victimization of young children and dogs.  Americans may have become desensitized or numb to violence directed against adult and teenaged humans.  Cable television has, for many years, provided bumper-to-bumper coverage of such violence.  The news is filled daily with stories about young adults shooting or stabbing one another over the slightest provocation.

The Newtown, Connecticut massacre in December 2012 was different:  Twenty first-graders lost their lives, and the media jumped all over the tragedy for some six months.  Even Congress and the President got involved in attempting to change national policy.  It is doubtful that the reaction would have been so extreme if all of the victims had been adults.

— By Angela Herring

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