The psychologist Jonathan Haidt is a pioneer in the study of disgust as motivator of moral judgments. In some of his early experiments, he asked individuals to evaluate the ethics of situations which are upsetting even though they do not involve the infliction of suffering or harm. One of his scenarios involved eating pets: A family's dog was killed by a car in front of their home. They had heard that dog meat was delicious so they cut the dog's body up and ate it for dinner. Haidt then ask his subjects if it is okay for a person to eat their dead pet and to explain the logic behind their answer.
When I pose this scenario to my university psychology students, nearly all of them conclude that it would be wrong for the family to eat their deceased dog. Most of them, however, cannot come up with a coherent logical reason for their decision. After all, the dead dog is not going to suffer. They tell me it just feels wrong. It's the yuck factor. And as most Americans consider their pets to be family members, dining on your dog seems uncomfortably close to cannibalism.
A recent study published in the journal Anthrozoos, however, suggests there are surprising cultural differences in attitudes towards eating pets, in this case, cats. It is widely known that dogs are a common item on the menu in some Asian countries. (See this post on the origins of dog-eating.). But until now, I had never given any thought to the idea that people might eat cats, and sometimes, even their own pet cat.
The Cat-Eaters of Madagascar
The article, aptly titled Consumption of Domestic Cat in Madagascar: Frequency, Purpose, and Health Implications, describes a study conducted by a team of researchers lead by Raymond Czaja of Temple University. The researchers interviewed the heads of households in five towns in central Madagascar. The goals of the study were to determine the frequency of cat meat consumption, the reasons people ate cat meat, the cultural transmission of taboos against eating cat, and the sources of the cats. This is the first systematic study of a culture in which cats are eaten, and the results are fascinating.
The researchers found that cats were eaten in all the towns, though to varying degrees. In three of the towns, about 25% adults had consumed feline flesh, while in the other two towns about half of individuals had eaten cat. In none of the towns, however, was cat a common dinner fare. In fact, the average villager had only eaten cat meat three times in their lives. And when asked to list their favorite foods, hardly anyone spontaneously mentioned cat meat.
The researchers had hypothesized that because cat meat was not a preferred food, its consumption would be restricted to economic hard times. They were wrong. There was no evidence that people turned to eating cat only as a last resort when other forms of meat were unavailable. Rather, killing and eating cats seemed to be motivated more by sheer opportunity than necessity or a pronounced culinary preference.
The researchers also wanted test the notion that food taboos are culturally transmitted. Thus they predicted that the towns would differ in the strength of prohibitions against eating feline flesh. This was technically true: for example, 10% of the residents in one town had a personal taboo against eating cat compared to none of the inhabitants of another town. On the whole, however, only 3% of all the individuals interviewed in the study were disgusted by the idea of eating cat meat. As the consumption of dog meat is widely tabooed on the island of Madagascar, the lack of prohibitions against eating cats is surprising.
To me, the biggest surprise of the research was related to how Madagascarans obtained their cat meat. Half of the time they simply ate the family pet. Cat meat was also commonly acquired in the form of gifts from friends. And sometimes cats were caught by hand or by trapping. In one of the towns, most of the cats were - gulp -- road kill. Hardly anyone had ever bought cat meat at a market.
What We Can Learn About Human-Animal Relationships From Cat-Eating
This study illustrates some general facets of anthrozoology - the new science of human-animal relationships. First, the commonly held belief that people never eat their pets is not true. Public opinion polls report that between 75% and 95% of American pet owners think of their dogs and cats as family members. While the researchers did not report on whether cats are considered family members in Madagascar, but I'm pretty sure they are not.
Second, as I described in this article, when it comes to our attitudes towards animals, culture is often more important than biology. In his book Cat Sense, John Bradshaw shows how attitudes towards cats differ widely between societies and can change rapidly. In ancient Egypt, cats were deified, in the Middle Ages they were vilified, and over the last two hundred years, they have become objects of our affection. Now we can add "some we eat" to the list. Indeed, a million cats are consumed each year in Asia. In parts of Africa, eating cat meat is associated with good luck, and in some rural villages in Switzerland cat is served up for Christmas dinner.
Third, eating animals can be risky. The researchers point out that cat meat is potentially perilous as cats are often infected with toxoplasmosis and other contagious diseases. They argue that public health officials in Madagascar should discourage the consumption of road kill and cats that have died of natural causes.
And they urge cat eaters to thoroughly cook feline flesh.
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Czaja, R., Wills, A., Hanitriniaina, S., Reuter, K. E. & Sewell, B.J. (2015) Consumption of domestic cat in Madagascar: Frequency, purpose, and health implications. Anthrozoos, 28:3, 469-482.
Hal Herzog is professor of psychology at Western Carolina University and author of the book Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard To Think Straight About Animals.
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