Most everyone saw the cute animal twitter war that happened a few days ago between various zoos and aquariums. It was a real win-win situation in that (a) I love animals, (b) I love cute animals, and (c) BABY ANIMALS, OMG, HOW CAN I EVEN?!
It was much discussed amongst my friends which we found cutest (baby tigers! No baby otters!) and why (look at their little ears! Those little paws!). But one friend mostly stayed out of the uplifting discussion (and retweeting) that followed. She’s not much of an animal lover.
We all have one friend like that right? While we were mooning over horses, they maintained that any animal that lets people ride it can’t be that smart. Dogs are messy and noisy. Cats aren’t to be trusted. Who would ever even want a reptile as a pet? And so on.
As an avid animal lover her disinterest in most things cute and fluffy has always been a source of confusion to me. She admitted that the vast majority of people’s helpless gushing over animals confused her, so we were even in that respect, though she’s in the minority.
Where does the difference come from? The most common assumption of course, is that it’s a habit. If you grow up with pets as a child, you’re more likely to have some sort of animal companion when you grow up – right? Familiarity and confidence in animal caretaking skills sounds like a strong basis for pet ownership. However, it turns out that this is one situation in which the obvious is concealing the truth.
One of the best ways to determine how much of a trait is due to life experience or genetics, are twin studies. Scientists LOVE twin studies. A study from the University of Chicago looked into data collected as part of an ongoing, long running Vietnam Era Twin Study of Aging that collects data on 1000 pairs of (male) twins in order to examine behavioural interactions with animals.
The results? First, identical twins responded more similarly than fraternal twins did, when discussing their interactions with animals. The researchers determined that 35% of the differences in whether or not the participants played with pets could be attributed to genetics. That seems like a rather large genetic disposition towards or against animals before a person is even born.
And yet, coming back around to the idea that having pets as a kid would be a large factor in determining if you have pets as an adult – apparently it’s not true. The shared environment of siblings who grew up together with pets was not nearly as important as non-shared events, that is individual events in a person’s life. The study determined that 70% of the differences between twin siblings in relation to animals were a result of non-shared environments or random factors. That’s more than twice the impact of the genetic factors.
Growing up in a pet-friendly environment apparently has no impact on the future outcome of pet ownership. A person could grow up with a genetic predisposition to like animals, grow up in a pet-loving environment and be completely turned off of all animals by specific life events. Like being attacked by a dog, for example.
My non-animal loving friend did not have pets when she was growing up. But she was bitten by a dog once. So is it nature – a genetic inclination to be uninterested in animals, as evidenced by lack of childhood pets? Or the trauma of being bitten by a dog when she was younger? According to this study, it was more likely the latter.
Keeping in mind that (a) it’s none of my business, (b) her non-attachment to animals was probably cemented in place before she was ten, and (c) I love my friends anyway even when they don’t like fluffy animals – I’ll try to be more sympathetic to her plight. Besides, that means more snuggling animals for me.