WE LOVE OUR pets. Two thirds of Americans live with an animal, and according to a 2011 Harris poll, 90 percent of pet owners think of their dogs and cats as members of the family. These relationships have benefits. For example, in a survey by the American Animal Hospital Association, 40 percent of married female dog owners reported they received more emotional support from their pet than from their husband or their kids. The pet products industry calls this “the humanization of pets.” One of my colleagues recently spent $12,000 on cancer treatments for her best friend Asha, a Labrador retriever.
Newspaper editors tell me stories about animal abuse often generate more responses from upset readers than articles about violence directed toward humans. But do Americans really care more about pets than people?
Take, for example, police shootings. The FBI claims that about 400 people a year are killed by police in “justifiable homicides.” The number of incidents in which cops shoot dogs is very hard to pin down. You sometimes hear the claim that a dog is shot by a police officer “every 98 minutes.” That’s would be about 5,000 dogs a year. But Merritt Clifton, editor of Animals 24-7 thinks, based on his analyses of media reports, that the number of dogs killed each year in “confrontational incidents” with cops is probably between 300 and 500 – about the same as human cop shootings.
Because of high profile incidents like the death last week of Walter Scott in Charleston, South Carolina, and, of course, the case of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, death-by-cop is in the news. But, as is illustrated by two shootings that took place within 24 hours last year in Idaho, it is not always the case that we value people over pets.
On July 8, 2014, Jeanetta Riley, pregnant and a mother of two, was killed by police officers outside a hospital in Sandpoint, Idaho. Riley reportedly had a history of drug addiction and alcoholism, and she was drunk, incoherent, and waving a filet knife at the three police officers who showed up at the hospital. A dashboard video camera mounted on one of the police cars shows that Riley was at least 10 feet from the cops when they opened fire. Why the police opted to shoot Riley rather than zap a 100-pound woman with one of the Tasers they were carrying is unclear. The officers were subsequently exonerated, no apology was given to Riley’s family, and the story never made national news until it was recently dredged up by a reporter from the Guardian.