DRI-460: Can Economics Help Man Peacefully Coexist With Dogs and (Big) Cats?

An old journalistic maxim states that it is only news when man bites dog, not vice-versa. These days, the demand for raw material that can be fashioned into a retail product called “news” far outstrips the supply. Thus, animal bites become “attacks” and injuries escalate into “maulings.” Two incidents in 2012 have attracted considerable attention and comment. They are a springboard for a look at the relationship between man and animals, using economics as our analytical tool.

Dog Bites Denver Anchorwoman; Cheetahs Bite Scottish Wife and Daughter

The first incident occurred a few months ago in Denver, CO. A local fireman rescued a dog from icy waters. The rescue made NBC affiliate KUSA-TV’s local news. Anchorwoman Kyle Dyer decided to invite the fireman and dog onto her midday interview show for a “feel-good” interview segment.

During the course of the program, Dyer approached the dog and knelt next to it – apparently to pet or embrace it. The dog bit her in the face. After cosmetic surgery and a significant recuperative period, the newswoman is back on the job.

The second episode took place last week in South Africa. A Scottish family on vacation visited a game preserve that included a petting zoo. Among the animals there were two cheetahs. After being assured that the cheetahs were “tame,” the wife and her 8-year-old daughter approached and began playing with the cheetahs.

One of the cheetahs grabbed the girl by the leg. The woman, who had been lying with or on top of the other cheetah, was bitten and scratched. The husband, who was photographing the visit to the petting zoo, caught all this on camera.

The Implicit Theory of the Victims

There is an implicit or unconscious theory behind the actions of the Denver anchorwoman and the Scottish couple. Ms. Dyer’s avowedly “feel-good” segment would utilize time-worn techniques to elicit sympathy for the dog and the fireman by manipulating the audience’s emotions.

Those techniques required the physical presence of dog and rescuer so as to figuratively reenact the rescue. Questions directed to the rescuer would be the one means of effecting this result. The anchorwoman would coax “spontaneous” reactions from the dog in order to milk emotion from the audience. The entire segment would take on the character of a theatrical production, with each participant playing a role intended to get specific reactions from the audience.

Unfortunately, the dog was not up on his part and did not follow his cues. The reaction of the station’s operations manager – that the dog exhibited “behavior nobody predicted or understood” – is not unlike one that might have been proffered to excuse the engagement of an employee who later committed a crime. “He had no previous criminal history. How could we know that he would go bad?”

The reaction of the Denver authorities suggested that blame for the biting should be assigned to the dog’s owner – even though the dog was held on short leash at the time. Law enforcement announced that the owner would be prosecuted under local law for “not having control of the dog at all times” and “allowing it to bite” (!).

The notion that the anchorwoman herself might have induced the bite was never even contemplated. The reasons for this lapse are clear. Her intentions were perfectly benign, even noble. How could she possibly be at fault, then? And it is, indeed, perfectly obvious that she never considered the possibility that she might be bitten – an outcome even more professionally hazardous than it was personally injurious. (How many successful news readers with scarred faces come readily to mind?)

Yet the comments of professional dog behaviorists left no doubt about where they placed blame for the biting. One insisted that “the dog was trying to tell her [Dyer] ‘I am going to bite you.'” Another summed up the incident by saying that “she [Dyer] did everything wrong.”

Man-made Law vs. Dog Rules

The implicit theory followed by the station, the anchorwoman and the DA was that “good” dogs are those that obey man-made statutes, while “bad” dogs do not. Moreover, dogs apparently may “go bad” suddenly and unpredictably, in the manner of people who “go postal” and commit random acts of violence.

This implicit theory runs completely counter to what we know about dogs. Dogs act according to dog rules, which have nothing to do with man-made statutes. Contrary to the impression created by countless movies and television shows, dogs are not moral creatures. While this is not quite the same thing as saying that they are unaffected by what we call emotions, it does mean that we should quit judging dogs by human standards of behavior.

The anchorwoman approached unhesitatingly, without waiting for a sign of approval from the dog. While this is common practice in human society and convenient for theatrical purposes, it is a clear violation of dog rules. Dogs are pack animals. They automatically treat non-pack members with caution and suspicion, an instinct inherited from their wolf ancestors. In the wild, failure to be on guard against strangers can cost your life.

The anchorwoman bent over the dog – preparatory to delivering a hug or kiss, perhaps. This is a friendly gesture among humans. But towering directly over a dog is perceived by the dog as a gesture of dominance. It may be tolerated – if the dog is submissive. But a dominant dog may aggressively reject such an overture, by growling or biting. Since dogs do not wear signs saying “I am dominant” or “I am submissive,” humans should avoid this behavior with unfamiliar dogs. Thousands of children suffer facial bites each year when bending down and attempting to kiss dogs.

Another implicit theory popular in human circles treats a dog’s bite as a hostile gesture, comparable to a blow struck in anger by one human against another. Lacking the multiple modes of expression available to us, dogs economize by assigning multiple meanings to their limited vocabulary. Biting is used to warn, as in this case. Dogs also bite each other when playing. Biting is an instinctive, reflex response used in ways analogous to a human shout or cry.

Although dogs certainly bite to inflict injury or death, their teeth are poorly adapted for this purpose, being rather short and blunt. It is difficult for a dog to inflict severe damage with a single bite without precise delivery to a strategic location, such as face or groin; dogs, like wolves, do the greatest damage by working in packs and tearing flesh with their carnassial teeth. That is why dogs are omnivores rather than strict carnivores. Cats, in contrast, are pure carnivores whose long, sharp teeth make them ideal killers. (That is why the danger of infection is so much greater for cat bites than for dog bites.)

Reports of the incident sometimes referred to it as an “attack.” This is semantically dubious, since an attack is, by definition, an offensive action and our explication of dog rules marks this particular bite as a defensive reaction.

We can sum up the attitude implicit in conventional thinking about dogs by the public and the law. “Dogs are smaller, four-legged versions of human beings, with limited powers of reasoning but a mental structure and moral outlook nonetheless comparable to ours. When they act in ways we find inappropriate, we may feel free to judge them by human standards; e.g., by punishing them for their sins.”

The Implicit Theory of Cheetah Tameness

The Scottish couple who visited the South African game preserve was also applying an implicit theory of human-animal interaction. We will call it the theory of “cheetah tameness.”

The idea of cheetah tameness may strike many readers as inherently absurd. Aren’t cheetahs carnivorous wild animals, like lions and tigers? Isn’t a “tame cheetah” an oxymoron, like a chaste prostitute?

Actually, mankind has been reducing cheetahs to captivity and domesticating them for centuries, at least since the days of ancient Egypt. Sometimes the objective has been perpetuation of the species, as when cheetahs are bred inside zoos. Sometimes the cats have been privately owned and raised as pets. The upshot is that the appellation of “tame” has often been applied to cheetahs, unlike other big cats. The question is: What practical implications and limits apply to this status?

Accounts of the bites suffered by the woman and her daughter suggest that the couple interpreted the concept of tameness in roughly the following way: “Because the two cheetahs were born in captivity and raised as pets by human beings, the cheetahs essentially considered themselves human and accordingly behaved in ways consonant with that belief – subject to the mental and physical limitations imposed by their actual physical status as cheetahs, of course. The family could behave toward the cheetahs as if they were human, by approaching them, playing with them, even lounging with and lying upon them – all without fear of suffering physically at the cheetahs’ hands… er, paws.”

Put so baldly, this sounds naïve, even idiotic. Yet nothing less could explain the couple’s behavior. Why else would they allow their 8-year-old daughter to play with the animals? Why would the husband complacently photograph their interactions with the cats – and continue to do so even as the action became bloody and dangerous? Why would the wife – who described the cheetah’s thought processes as being “like children” – feel free to lie down upon one of the cheetahs?

Cheetahs are large felines. Cats are playful animals who bat each other with their paws. Cats sometimes bite owners who act in non-approved (by the cats) ways; e.g., by scratching the cats’ stomachs or teasing them by waving their hands or other objects within reach.

Here again, accounts of the cheetah episode refer to it as an “attack.” Even more than in the Denver case, this word is an obvious misnomer. A cheetah is the fastest land animal in the world, created by nature to reach and kill wild game and defend it in a world of competing predators. If the cheetahs had really attacked the Scottish family, those people would be dead. An attacking cheetah would not have grabbed an 8-year-old girl – small enough to qualify as “prey” in the cheetah perception – by the leg. The cheetah would have bit her in the throat and made short work of her. The “mauled” wife would not have been in any shape to give interviews to the press afterwards; the husband would not have been able to complain that “the authorities should have made sure that the petting zoo was safe before allowing tourists” to visit it. Both husband and wife would both have been in the morgue.

The Implicit Theory of Justice

The issue of intent is worth raising because the implicit theory of justice applied to animals in such cases is so heavily dependent on it. For example, dogs that bite are often killed because they are “proven biters” or because “we cannot risk it happening again” – arguments devoid of justification because all dogs are biters and there is no logical or empirical link between one bite and a subsequent one.

Human beings are moral creatures. Punishment for misbehavior achieves at least three worthwhile purposes – protection from actual misbehavers, deterrence from misbehavior by potential misbehavers and revenge against misbehavers to ease pain felt by victims and relatives. Cognizance of our mistakes is the logical prerequisite for this. Indeed, that is the basis for the most common legal definition of insanity – the inability to distinguish right from wrong.

None of these arguments applies to animals, which have no moral sense, cannot be deterred from reacting instinctively and are unaware that their statutory punishment constitutes revenge for misbehavior. The implicit theory of justice behind punishing animals for injuring humans rests on a false analogy between animals and humans. We use words like “euthanasia” to soften the impact of the fact that we kill animals in reaction to our own mistakes; pejoratives like “attack” and “maul” frame the animals for crimes in order to justify capital punishment.

The issue is further clouded by irrelevant considerations like “animal rights” and allegations of “sentiment for animals.” The assignment of rights to non-sentient creatures incapable of exercising them raises too many logical obstacles to warrant serious consideration. Insistence on logic in the evaluation of human/animal interactions does not elevate sentiment – it downplays it. The sentimentalists are those who judge animals by our standards.

Having said all that, it is not difficult to see where the romantic, sentimental tendency to humanize animals came from.

Modern Neuroscience and the Economic Theory of Knowledge

Over half a century ago, a future Nobel laureate in economics, F. A. Hayek, published a revolutionary study in theoretical psychology called The Sensory Order. Among the book’s numerous insights was one that has subsequently been picked up by modern neuroscience – that we gradually create and improve our fragmentary understanding of a vast, complex reality by developing theories about the world to substitute for the unavoidable gaps in our specific knowledge.

Hayek integrated his theory of human psychology with his economic theory. The latter stressed the importance of markets as disseminators of knowledge that is dispersed and decentralized in the brains of billions of people the world over. Throughout the 20th century, economists made extensive use of the concept of equilibrium, a state of affairs in which nobody can gain from changing their current pattern of behavior. The most frequent example of equilibrium is the clearing of markets – that is, the state in which prices equate ex ante quantities offered for sale with desired purchases.

Hayek pointed out that economists overlooked – or deliberately refrained from mentioning – that equilibrium presupposed full knowledge about production and consumption opportunities. Only the operation of free markets could in fact generate that knowledge and make it widely available. And since human perception is fragmentary and subjective, markets perform the irreplaceable function of gradually bringing the subjective perceptions of billions of people into line with the true, objective facts of reality. They do this by bringing to light information that would otherwise not exist or be transmitted to those most in need of it.

The Evolution of Human Understanding of Animals

The interaction of human beings and animals goes back as far as our knowledge of the human species. Most animals were a source of labor, food or observation. Domesticated dogs and cats threw in their lot with man thousands of years ago – well, actually, it is unclear who joined up with who. Improbable as the implicit theories described above may seem, their underlying basis has been accepted throughout mankind’s history, until quite recently. (Competing theories have tended to be even less plausible, such as those elevating animals to the status of deities as was done in ancient Egypt and in India.) After all, we really had little choice except to compare animals to what we knew.

When did the traditional view of animals change? What caused the change? Hayek pointed out that, far from requiring rationality on the part of market participants, markets tend to promote rationality by rewarding it. Here, the rewards began with the Industrial Revolution and accelerated dramatically with the surge in economic growth that accompanied the 20th century.

For most of human history, domestic animals served two primary purposes – companionship and labor. Their value in chose uses was stable but low. Domestic animals were a source of companionship; this rewarded knowledge that improved their health and longevity. Those developments had to await comparable innovations in human medicine and nutrition. Meanwhile, the companion value of dogs and cats provided a sustaining incentive maintain the population.

Dogs and cats provided a source of labor on farms for centuries, during which time human life was predominantly rural. There was little scope for improvements in agricultural productivity generally or the factor productivity of domestic animals, so while the romantic view of animals had obvious shortcomings there was little motivation or ability to improve on it.

When the worldwide engine of economic growth shifted into overdrive, this opened up opportunities for domestic animals. As humans became healthier and started living longer, the companion value of domestic animals increased. Improvements in human medicine gradually percolated down to veterinary medicine, and the increased companion value made it economically feasible to employ them.

Wealthier societies can afford to focus more time, energy and resources on aesthetic concerns like human treatment of animals, which produced more, better and healthier domestic animals. More and more uses for the animals were developed. Seeing-eye dogs were followed by bomb-sniffing dogs and medical-therapy dogs. That last category now includes dogs specialized to detect their owners’ seizures and low-blood-sugar episodes and act upon the discovery.

Higher productivity meant that domestic animals became better investments, which meant that learning what made them tick became more economically desirable and feasible. Books and television programs by veterinarians and trainers became big sellers. Thus, objective truth about animals was transmitted from those best qualified to apprehend it to those who wanted and needed it the most.

This economic process picked up speed and momentum in the second half of the 20th century and became the avalanche of today. It is now commonplace to see articles in the popular and business press marveling at the time and expenditure allocated to pets, but much less space is devoted to the enormous increase in the value created by them and enjoyed by their owners. And yet economic theory suggests that domestic animals are capital goods – long-lived producer goods used to produce other goods, assets that produce a stream of value over a period of years. Their value is derived from the net present value of this stream of output that they produce.

At long last, we are shedding the romantic view of dogs as either good dogs or bad dogs, Lassie or the Hound of the Baskervilles. It is no longer sensible to assassinate a few million potential productive assets every year in municipal animal shelters – thus, the trend toward no-kill shelters, pet rescue and adoption programs.

Hayekian Equilibrium in the Market for Domestic Animals

Cases like the Denver and South African ones show that our subjective perceptions have still not caught up with the objective reality of animals. But our analysis also proves that markets have wonders in improving the lives of both people and animals – and can do even more if we let them.

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