Americans love cats and dogs. Other animals? It’s complicated.

How can you love some animals but eat others?

It’s a question posed frequently by vegan activists, often accompanied by a picture of a cute dog or cat juxtaposed with an equally adorable pig or cow.

Yet, as compelling as the argument may be to activists, the meat-heavy diet of most Americans reveals that the public remains untroubled by the question. Or, as one popular meme argues in response, “Because one is a friend and one is bacon.”

Despite Americans’ food preferences, most of us like to think of ourselves as animal lovers — there’s about one cat or dog for every 2.4 people — and many Americans can even express pretty radical views about animal rights, at least when pollsters call.

For example, 32 percent of respondents to one 2015 Gallup poll agreed that “animals deserve the exact same rights as people to be free from harm and exploitation.” Skeptical of such strong support for animal rights, I conducted a follow-up survey a few years later, finding an even higher rate — 47 percent — endorsed this view. (I’m a professor and researcher who studies social movements, food systems, and animal rights.)

These results might lead you to believe that one-third to a half of Americans support giving animals substantial rights. But when respondents support animal rights in polls, they’re not actually talking about all animals.

In reality, people have a classification system for animals in their heads, and then perceive and treat them differently based on those classifications. Case in point: 75 percent of my survey respondents identified as an “animal lover,” though only about 6 percent followed a vegetarian or vegan diet. How we sort animals into different categories is shaped by an intersecting and evolving mix of factors, based in human psychology, cultural norms, direct experience, and media exposure.

Each year in the US alone, billions of animals are factory-farmed in terrible conditions, millions are confined in cages in medical labs, and countless animals’ habitats are cleared for development.

Until we have a clearer picture of how people actually think about animals, we have little hope of changing public opinion, let alone the laws that govern how animals live and die.

As a way to better understand these surprising poll results and their inconsistencies, I conducted a series of focus groups with diverse groups of Americans. What I found in my research demonstrates the serious barriers that stand in the way of change — while also pointing to some strategies to shift the way people think and eat.

How we categorize and rank animals

For the focus groups, I first screened participants by asking them the same Gallup poll question — whether they believe “animals deserve the exact same rights as people to be free from harm and exploitation.”

When thinking about the poll question, many people told me their mental picture of “animals” was restricted to only those they considered pets. Regardless of their response to the poll, almost no one endorsed the idea that all animals deserved legal protection on par with humans. As one respondent put it, “There is definitely a hierarchy.”

The conversations showed people slot different animals into different mental categories, a mostly unconscious sorting process that has enormous implications.

The topic has received some attention in recent years from social psychologists and anthrozoologists, although there remains ongoing debate about what, exactly, these categories are, as does a recognition that there will be major differences across global cultures.

The psychologist Hal Herzog put it in pithy terms with the title of his 2010 book: Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals.

One study proposes four clusters based on the animal’s perceived warmth (defined as whether they have good intentions toward humans) and competence (defined as whether they have capability and skill). The groups included predators (low warmth, high competence), companions (high warmth, high competence), prey (high warmth, low competence), and pests (low warmth, low competence).

Researchers have found that people categorize animals based on the animal’s perceived warmth (defined as whether they have good intentions toward humans) and competence (defined as whether they have capability and skill).
Journal of Applied Social Psychology

While these existing categories are useful for scholars, they don’t really reflect how people discuss animals in their everyday lives. In order to inform research and practice, I wanted to understand how people make sense of these issues on their own terms.

Based on my focus groups and some additional surveys, I came to identify four main categories of animals that people held within their mental schema: companions, wildlife, food/farm, and pests. From there, people connected each category to a different set of moral obligations and ideal forms of legal protection.

Companion animals included household pets, mostly dogs and cats but also a host of other domesticated animals, such as horses and rabbits. These animals were spoken about with sincere love and affection, and participants supported strong laws to protect them.

Wildlife brought to mind charismatic megafauna such as great apes, elephants, and whales. People believed these animals deserved respect and the ability to live free from human control, and many argued it was unethical to force them to perform as circus acts. However, respondents were ambivalent about the ethics of keeping wildlife in zoos, which they saw as having valuable educational and conservation possibilities.

Food/farm animals referred not only to those most common in the American diet — pigs, chickens, cows, fish, and the like — but also to several so-called “exotic” animals less frequently consumed in the United States, such as an octopus or alligator.

Here, participants expressed hope that these animals would not be subject to excessive cruelty, and in some instances recognized the moral ambiguity of their own meat consumption. Mostly, though, people just tried not to think much about it. “I feel kind of bad about eating pig,” one respondent explained, “because the more I learn about the animal, the more I realize it’s about as intelligent as a dog. … But bacon is delicious.”

For all but the rare vegetarian, any cognitive dissonance was overwhelmed by the dominant ideology of “carnism,” which insists these animals were made to be meat.

Finally, the category of pests included animals with little to no moral consideration or legal protection. “I don’t look at pests like that as animals,” another respondent said. “I don’t look at rats and roaches and stuff, even though they are animals, I don’t look at them as animals.”

Useful as this framework may be, these categories are not set in stone. Variations exist between individuals — a squirrel, for instance, might be considered a pest by one person, wildlife by another, or food by another. There’s also variation within a single individual: A person who generally considers turtles to be wildlife might consider them food at an international restaurant, or begin to categorize them as companion animals if, say, their child wanted one as a pet.

This categorization is understandable, as it prevents us from having to spend too much time or mental effort in treating all animals equally. Even a devoted vegan draws distinctions between different types of animals, willing to swat at a mosquito or sometimes exterminate a cockroach, albeit with a twinge of guilt.

What a legal system for animal rights could look like

The categorization — and how participants talked about each group of animals — also tracks with actual law, which has resulted in a confusing and conflicting legal system for animals.

For example, most state animal cruelty laws exempt “standard agricultural practices,” meaning farmed animals have little to no protection while dogs and cats do. A federal law that governs the proper treatment and humane handling of food animals does not apply to chickens, the most commonly slaughtered animal. Anti-cruelty laws are rarely applied to wild animals, and only a select few species are protected from so-called sport hunting.

Given this grim legal landscape, some thinkers and activists are creating models for what a more humane legal system for animals could look like.

Political theorists Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka, for instance, created the concept of a Zoopolis that recognizes the moral worth of all animals but creates a multitiered legal structure to accommodate different categories of human-animal interaction.

In this world, domesticated animals would be granted a type of limited citizenship, wild animals a form of sovereignty, and liminal animals (the non-domesticated that live among humans, such as a raccoon in the city) a form of “denizenship” that allows for coexistence. Drawing parallels with human law, domesticated animals might be regarded in a way similar to children, wild animals like a sovereign nation, and liminal animals along the lines of a refugee or isolationist community.

This vision would call for the end of most forms of animal farming, a new relationship between pets and their guardians (no longer “owners”), creative solutions for preserving wild habitats, and alternatives to mass “pest” extermination.

In another approach, the nonprofit Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) is working through US courts to shift the definition of animals from legal “things” to legal “persons” who are capable of bearing rights of their own.

So far, the organization’s focus has remained only on animals such as great apes, elephants, and cetaceans (whales and dolphins). They say this is due to scientific consensus regarding their high levels of cognitive complexity, self-awareness, and bodily autonomy, meaning that these animals have a demonstrated ability to solve problems, interact socially, and decide how they want to spend their day-to-day lives.

In one ongoing case, the NhRP is working to relocate Happy the Elephant from a solitary enclosure at the Bronx Zoo. The organization claims Happy’s fundamental right to liberty is being violated and hopes to relocate her to a court-approved elephant sanctuary instead.

At this stage, the vision of Zoopolis remains very far off, and even the NhRP’s more limited legal arguments have consistently lost in court. Still, many see it as progress that its arguments are being taken seriously at all.

The need for a more nuanced and incremental approach to animal rights

I brought some of these legal proposals to participants in my focus groups. Not surprisingly, most were happy to endorse welfare reforms that prevented excessive cruelty against (most) animals. They also intuitively felt the appeal of Zoopolis-styled political systems and the NhRP’s species-specific approach to animal rights.

However, respondents were baffled by how any of this could be implemented, and were concerned about the long-range implications. “We’re on this slippery slope,” one participant explained. “Where are they gonna stop?” People adamantly did not want to stop caring for their pets, and they weren’t ready to give up meat either.

Most critically, the public’s resistance to one of the animal rights movement’s core tenets — that all animals deserve to be free from human exploitation, inherent in the Zoopolis idea — helps identify the fundamental challenges that remain, as well as some openings for engagement.

One clear takeaway is that efforts to expand humanity’s moral circle to include animals are clearly important, but a one-size-fits-all approach probably won’t work. Instead, people who want to change social attitudes toward animals must be mindful of the multiple categories of animals that exist in people’s minds.

This might call for an incremental approach, such as trying to shift which animals are included within which categorical boundary — for instance, moving pigs from the category of food to the category of companion. That’s the strategy some activists are taking, by rescuing neglected farm animals and documenting their lives on social media like they would a dog or cat. A popular documentary such as the Oscar-winning My Octopus Teacher, while not an activist film, could also push people to move octopi squarely out of the “food” category.

Other efforts could focus on advancing protections for species that already inspire moral concern, trying to make legal breakthroughs for animals who are most likely to succeed, like the NhRP does.

In my focus group conversations, skepticism was often based as much in pragmatic confusion as it was in firm ideological opposition. If we give animals rights, how can they defend themselves in court? Could meat-eaters or pet owners be considered criminals? Where do we draw the line? Lacking answers to these questions, people often prefer to end the thought experiment entirely.

Expanding the moral circle to include animals is long-term work that requires a mix of cultural, institutional, and technological change. To make this happen, researchers, advocates, and people who place animal welfare high on their list of issue priorities need to have a working understanding of how people actually think about animals. They should also have answers ready for common questions about what a future where animals have rights actually looks like, even if those responses are tentative and subject to change.

By doing so, our society has a better chance to reduce animal suffering and help people become the animal lovers they say they already are.

Garrett Broad is an associate professor in the Department of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University, where his research examines contemporary social movements and the food system. He is the author of More Than Just Food: Food Justice and Community Change, as well as a variety of articles on food’s relationship to environmental sustainability, economic equity, and the health of humans and nonhuman animals.