23 October 2018

Does my turtle look disappointed?

If a labradoodle could speak, we would – to paraphrase Wittgenstein – not be able to understand it. What gives our words meaning is a shared way of life, a way of making sense of the world. And yet, most people think their pets understand them or, at the very least, that their feelings are analogous to ours. To contribute to sustainable human–animal relationships, Bingtao Su, under the supervision of Pim Martens, researched the relationship between the ethical outlook of pet owners, their sense of attachment to their animal companions and their attribution of emotions to them.

Onderzoek naar een duurzame relatie tussen mens en dier

Turtle-steps towards greater awareness

Almost all pet owners in the study attributed primary emotions like anger, joy or fear to their cats and dogs. Secondary or more complex emotions, such as jealousy or shame, also came up in varying degrees. Interestingly, more than 70% percent of respondents in the Eastern countries attributed compassion to their pets, versus 28% in the Netherlands. “Compassion plays a pivotal role in many Eastern cultures; people might therefore be more aware of it and more likely to interpret their animals’ behaviour in that way.”

The philosopher Jeremy Bentham would have said of Wittgenstein’s pooch that it doesn’t matter whether he can reason or talk, only that he can suffer. And, slowly and steadily like a turtle, we should translate into action the realisation that animals – even the ones we don’t cuddle regularly – can suffer, and that how we treat them reflects on us.

Bingtao Su (31) has a PhD in Sustainability Science with a focus on sustainable human–animal relationships. The title of her thesis is ‘Human–animal relationships: A cross-cultural comparison of human attitudes towards animals’. Prior to coming to Maastricht, she studied sociology at Northwest A&F University, China.

Pim Martens (AGE) is professor of Sustainable Development at UM and extraordinary professor at Stellenbosch University. He has conducted research at ETH Zurich, Heidelberg University, Harvard University, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and elsewhere. He is the founder of AnimalWise, a “think and do tank” working towards a better relationship with animals


By: Florian Raith (text), Paul van der Veer (photography)