Animals have accompanied humans for thousands of years, with a strong bond forged between humans and other species. Our relationships with animals can take different forms. On the one hand, animals can serve instrumental purposes: we currently use animals for clothing, for testing a range of human products, for gaining basic insights into human biology and behavior, and as food. On the other hand, human–animal relations are social. The clearest example is the practice of pet-keeping, with people attributing a special status to their pets [1
Studies have shown that most children reject the idea of humans being animals [2
], although they do have a propensity to anthropomorphise animals [3
]. Most children have an appreciation for animals on the emotional and recreational levels. They tend to show affection as well as concern for them, in contrast to the more practical and utility-based perspectives of adults [3
]. Kellert [3
] found that children were strongly emotionally attached to individual animals. Hunting was not popular among the children and was only deemed acceptable if the end purpose was to feed oneself as opposed to sheer trophy hunting. Similar results were found by Pagani, et al. [6
], who reported the majority of children were against hunting, zoos, animals used in circuses, and their exploitation for leather. Slight preferences were expressed for zoos compared to circuses, perhaps because zoos pursued a greater mission in terms of education and conservation. Earlier, Driscoll [7
] outlined the different views adults have on how humans should use animals. Despite considerable opposition, most were in favour of animals being used in medical or scientific research, but did not approve of their use in product testing. Expressing similar ethical concerns, a large proportion of children disapproved of the use of animals in fur farming [3
Understanding the attitudes that younger generations have toward animals may help us to understand the sustainability of future societies, as our attitude towards animals are central in the sustainability debate. Many factors including gender, age, nationality/ethnicity, residence area, animal-related activities and hobbies, food habits, culture/religion, education, and pet ownership are associated with people’s attitudes toward animals [8
]. The present study was conducted among high school students in Belgium and the Netherlands. Through this study, we aim to find out whether the variables we mentioned above and other variables like household, house type, meat-eating frequency correlate with young adults’ attitudes toward animals.
Research into children’s attitudes toward animals in the Netherlands and Belgium was conducted between May and July in 2016. During this period, a paper-based questionnaire was implemented in four different schools, including three schools in the French-speaking province of Walloon, Collège du Christ Roi (N = 54), Athénée Maurice Carême (N = 148), Paul Delvaux (N = 45) and one school in the south of the Netherlands, Rombouts College (N = 120). All participants were high school students aged 12 to 21. Selection of participants in this study was made through simple random sampling; however, only those classes that replied to the invitation to participate in the research are represented here. Schools were contacted via mail and/or telephone prior to visits.
The questionnaire consisted of four parts. In the first, we asked respondents to provide their demographic details, including age, gender, nationality, highest level of education, household composition, residence area, type of house, presence of a garden, zoo/aquarium visiting frequency, meat-eating frequency, pet ownership and religious affiliation.
In the second part, we introduced the Animal Attitude Scale (AAS) [10
], which was used to assess the participant’s attitude toward animals by means of a Likert scale. The questionnaire consisted of 20 questions rated from 1 (strongly agree) to 5 (strongly disagree) for all questions except questions number: 1,3,4,7,10,11,17,19, 20, which were all reverse coded from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). Total AAS scores were calculated by adding up all individual questions scores. Higher AAS scores indicated a higher concern and respect for animals. Questions included: “I do not think that there is anything wrong with using animal in medical research” Or “Wild animals, such as mink and raccoons, should not be trapped and their skins made into fur coats”.
In the third part of the questionnaire, the Animal Issue Scale (AIS) [11
] was introduced and served as a complement to the AAS questionnaire. This scale was much longer, comprised of 43 total questions. These questions were grouped across eight separate sections (use of animals, disrupting animal integrity, killing animals, compromising animal welfare, experimenting on animals, changing animals’ genotypes, animals and the environment, and societal attitudes toward animals). Again, respondents had to rate the questions on a five-mark scale ranging from high acceptability to high non-acceptability. Total AIS scores were calculated by adding individual section scores. Akin to the AAS questionnaire, a higher total AIS score indicates a more positive attitude toward animals, and lower acceptability for the issues described [12
]. For example, these issues included: “Keeping animals for the education of the public in zoos, wildlife parks, etc.” and “Killing young animals that are dependent on their parents”.
2.2. Statistical Analysis
Responses from the questionnaires were analysed through IBM SPSS Statistics (version 21, Armonk, NY: IBM Corp). Descriptive statistics were used to analyse the independent variables of age, sex, education level, household composition, residence place, housing type, presence of a garden, zoo and aquarium visiting frequency, meat-eating frequency, pet ownership and religious affiliation. Data was then analysed to check for normality so as to use the best fitted statistical test for analysis. All variables were non-normally distributed. They were thus analysed using a Mann–Whitney U-test and a Kruskal–Wallis test. Furthermore, post hoc analyses on the Kruskal–Wallis tests were conducted to calculate the differences between the average scores of each group. All results are assessed for significance based on the cut-off value of 0.05. Similar shapes of distribution were assumed for the Mann–Whitney U-test for all variables.
4. Discussion and Conclusion
Results from the study revealed several strong correlates for young adults’ attitudes towards animals. The most important factors identified here were: gender, nationality, zoo/aquarium visiting frequency and pet ownership. Similarly to results reported by previous research [5
], students’ attitudes towards animals measured by both AIS and AAS were found to be relatively positive.
Female respondents scored higher on both AAS and AIS than their male counterparts. Girls showed more concern for animals specifically in categories where the welfare and life of the animal was compromised (e.g. ‘killing animals’, ‘experimentation on animals’, ‘Harm animals for environment’). There were no differences between the two genders for items which involved animals being treated to improve their appearance or productivity (‘changes in animals’ genotypes’ and ‘animal integrity destruction’). The present results confirm findings of previous studies on gender differences identifying a prevalent female inclination for animal well-being and nurturing [3
Results also showed that Belgian students scored significantly higher in the attitudes questionnaires for most items in contrast to Dutch students. Previous studies have revealed fairly similar attitudes from citizens in both countries, in contrast to the present study. In his study on the welfare of pets in commerce, Dewar found that both Dutch and Belgian respondents were in favour of improving animal welfare in their respective countries. Additionally, in a study investigating the use of animals in society, European students expressed more concern for animal well-being than Asian students [12
]. However, more closely aligned to the present study were results from Pifer, Kinya Shimizu and Pifer [15
]. These authors found that Belgian respondents expressed more opposition towards animal research than their Dutch counterparts. The two countries do both in fact express concern for animal well-being; however Belgian respondents may be somewhat more passionate about these issues than Dutch students.
The present results also suggest a link between visits to the zoo/aquarium and positive attitudes towards animals. Young adults who reported that they never visited zoos or aquariums had lower AIS and AAS scores than the others. These findings support claims that zoos can fulfil more roles than mere entertainment, by encouraging learning experiences, a sense of connection towards wild animals, and focusing people’s attention on conservation issues [18
]. However, Tunnicliffe, et al. [20
] warn that these connections can only lead to a better-educated public if zoos integrate the experience with follow up discussions and leave space for reflection. Special attention should also be paid to less popular animals (e.g. bats, spiders etc.) to increase awareness on the vital role of biodiversity.
Pet ownership was another significant correlate in determining students’ attitudes. Analysis showed that students who owned a pet scored higher on the questionnaires and expressed greater concern for animal welfare than students without a pet. These outcomes are consistent with Prokop and Tunnicliffe [21
] previous findings on the relation between pet ownership and positive attitudes towards other animals. However research in this area has not yet shown consistent results and theories oscillate between whether pet ownership has a relationship to young adults’ attitudes towards animals [22
]; for example, how such ownership might correlate with attitudes towards less popular animal species [23
Regarding diet, significant differences were only observed in response scores for the AAS questionnaire. Those who ate meat once a week or less had higher scores than those who ate meat more frequently. The expression of higher concern for animal welfare from those who report to eat very little to no meat may be explained through the same line of thought found in Amato and Partridge [24
] work on vegetarians. Here, the authors reported that a majority of vegetarians had made their dietary choice for ethical beliefs in animal rights. Another study on vegetarian girls revealed that most also made their choice on an ethical basis, and as an effort to reduce animal suffering [25
]. Furthermore, these results can also be interpreted in a similar fashion to those of Hagelin, Carlsson and Hau [17
] who report that concern for animals killed for food can also be extended to a concern for animal well-being in other domains such as animal research. Finally, a short comment must be made on the relatively small number of self-reported vegetarians in the present study. Most students ate meat at least once a week; however, in those responses a few had added that they wished to be vegetarian, but their parents wouldn’t allow it. The results are therefore not entirely reflective of the dietary choices of all students.
Another important variable was household composition. Students living with a single parent demonstrated more concern for animal welfare in the questionnaire than those who lived with two parents. Perhaps these differences can be explained by Albert and Bulcroft [26
] work on pet owners, who wrote that, ‘‘Attachment to pets is highest among never married, divorced, widowed, and remarried people, childless couples, newlyweds, and empty-nesters. Never married, divorced, and remarried people, and people without children present, are also most likely to anthropomorphize their pets.’’ The young adults’ single parents in the present study fall under the category of ‘never married’ or ‘divorced’. As a parents’ behaviours influence that of their child [27
], it may be possible that these young adults adopted similar attitudes.
No differences were found between young adults who lived in urban areas and those who lived in rural areas, as has also been found in China [8
]. This is despite observations that urban and rural citizens have different opportunities to interact with animals, as is reflected in the finding of greater knowledge about animals in rural residents compared to city dwellers [3
]. Perhaps one reason that the present study found no differences between urban and rural residents is because the “urban” areas reflected in the present demographic were actually somewhat rural; small towns in close proximity to surrounding rural environments. In further support, neither the type of residence nor garden access correlated with attitudes in the present study.
Religion, more specifically Christianity, showed a weak relationship to young adults’ attitudes towards animals but only for a few particular questionnaire items rather than to overall scores. Items on the AIS that asked students for how acceptable they found the killing of animals or the destruction of their integrity correlated with higher values reported for the importance of religion in a respondent’s life.
Finally, age did not significantly correlate with attitudes. Because others have reported that significant changes in attitudes towards animals occur throughout childhood [3
], this finding was unexpected. However, variability in age in the present sample study group was small, and this may be why no relationship was found between age and attitude ratings.
As shown in the present study, pet ownership is usually associated with positive attitudes towards other animals [21
]. It is important to note however that pet ownership is not necessarily an end-all contributing factor to more positive attitudes. Although there is a relative correlation between pet ownership and more positive attitudes towards other animals, there is no guarantee that this attitude will extend to all animal species. The popularity, familiarity, biophilia (attraction), and the types of emotions that an animal species triggers can greatly influence the protection and welfare it receives from humans [28
]. Likewise, Vining [29
] stresses that emotion is at the heart of the actions or inactions of humans in terms of the respect and protection they provide animals. Furthermore, what arguably matters more is the quality of the relationship between young adults and their pets, or other animals in general. A study about animal abuse showed that fear of animals was a considerable determinant of negative attitudes (cruelty, apathy etc.) [6
]. This again highlights the importance of engaging in meaningful connections with animals.
Another positive correlated factor to positive attitudes are visits to zoos or aquariums. Young adults gain knowledge and significant appreciation for the environment and its different species, when learning outside the classroom setting, in direct contact with nature and wildlife [30
]). Informal educational settings such as zoos and aquariums should work to ensure exposure of their visitors to less popular animal species (e.g., pests, predators), in order to help students to understand the importance of each species in the ecosystem [21
]. A commitment to education is a common element in the mission statements of contemporary zoos; such institutions can make substantive contributions towards improving public understanding of and appreciation for an animal’s specific role in the ecosystem and thus enhance positive attitudes towards that animal [28
Lastly, the present study found that those who reported eating meat less frequently (once a week or less) also had more positive attitudes towards animals and their welfare as measured in one of the scales used (the AAS). People who opt to eat little or no meat may do so for many different reasons, including reasons having to do with health, economics, and/or an interest in reducing the ecological impact of meat production, as well as for reasons that stem from a moral objection to consuming animals [31
]. It should be noted that in the present study, the number of respondents stating that they ate meat only rarely was small (only about 5% of the total number of respondents); nonetheless the significant difference between this group and others in the study suggests that moral convictions that affect dietary choice may also correlate with moral convictions about the humane treatment of animals.
As this paper has shown, a variety of variables correlate with young people’s attitudes towards animals and their welfare. A better understanding of the causes of these correlations and the development of these variables over the lifetime of a child may help us to better structure the kinds of experiences that promote empathy and concern for all living things.