We Are Seeing Animals in a Different Light

Harambe was a 17-year-old gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo who was shot dead after an infant fell into his cage. Paul Shapiro writes that rather than shrugging our shoulders and figuring he was “just an animal,” it sparked the conversation about our responsibility to animals both in the wild and in captivity. Cincinnatti Zoo/Reuters

As the final grains of sand fall through the hourglass of our year, there are many things historians will say in hindsight about 2016. Of course, the year will be remembered for an unprecedented election, but it'll also be remembered for something else; it will be recognized as a year in which humanity's changing views of the rest of the animal kingdom became clearer than ever before.

In a study published in the journal Biological Conservation in September 2016, researchers reported data analyzing how American views of various animal species have shifted during the past 40 years.

While our thoughts about dogs and horses have remained consistently positive, we're beginning to see traditionally vilified animals in a different light. In fact, animals like bats, sharks, vultures, wolves and coyotes are all substantially more popular today than in the 1970s.

The proliferation of science-based media allowing us to see these creatures on their own terms, rather than as cartoonish, stigmatized versions, is shifting how we perceive them and therefore our desire to protect them.

Where once we saw most animals, at best, as unworthy of consideration, or, at worst, as threats to be dominated or exterminated, we're beginning to see them as intelligent individuals with personalities and preferences.

Take, for example, the national outrage regarding the killing of Harambe, the gorilla in the Cincinnati Zoo who was shot to death in May when a boy fell into his enclosure. Vigils and rallies were held nationwide lamenting Harambe's death, which became one of the year's most enduring memes.

Of course, that sorrow was about much more than a top trend on Twitter. Rather than shrugging our shoulders and figuring he was "just an animal," whether one believes his killing was justified or not, it sparked the conversation about our responsibility to animals both in the wild and in captivity.

Related: Why criminal charges are possible in the killing of a gorilla

The same month, another piece of evidence for our changing relationship with animals surfaced when Ringling Bros. forced its elephants to perform for one final circus act. After nearly 150 years of keeping pachyderms on the road to entertain crowds of humans—in spite of the physical and psychological toll circus life takes on them—changing social views about the appropriate use of wild animals along with policy advancements led the company to adapt.

The more Americans learned about how smart and complex these giant animals are, the less comfortable they became with them as objects for our amusement.

Perhaps the most stunning animal news story of 2016 wasn't about so-called charismatic megafauna like gorillas and elephants but about animals who in the past would have been considered a little humbler: farm animals.

In November, voters overwhelming passed Question 3 in Massachusetts, a historic ballot measure that phases out the sale of eggs, veal and pork from animals who were locked in cramped cages. A greater margin of voters supported the measure—a whopping 78 percent—more than they had supported any animal protection measure in American history, and perhaps any measure on any topic in all of Massachusetts's electoral history.

As a result, the animal agriculture industry sees the writing on the wall, perhaps more clearly than ever before, that it can no longer keep abusing farm animals as if they are inanimate units of assembly line production.

The researchers who published the study in September note in their findings that the more favorable we view a species, the more likely we are to care about what happens to them.

For animals who we've held in low regard in the past, the researchers openly hope our new, animal-friendlier point of view will "foretell increased support for efforts to conserve these species, and support for policies that explicitly consider their welfare."

If that happens, perhaps 2017 will see even more tangible improvements in our treatment of the animals with whom we share the planet. All of us, nonhuman and human alike, would be better off.

Paul Shapiro is the vice president of policy at The Humane Society of the United States.