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Good Question: Why Are We So Passionate About Animals?

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) - For the past two days, Cecil the lion's story has been told over and over across the world.  On Wednesday, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said that if Dr. Walter Palmer illegally killed the animal, he needs to be "extradited, charged, and, preferably, hanged." That's extreme, but many people are outraged.

So, why are we so passionate about animals?

"I think the fact that animals are dependent on us and that humans can defend themselves," said Dr. Pamela Schreiner, director of the Center to Study Human Animal Relationships and Environments at the University of Minnesota.

Schreiner says there are so many parts of Cecil's story that have made it go viral.  There's the criminal aspect, the huge amount of money and exotic location but, ultimately, it comes to down to an animal being involved.

On Tuesday night, comedian Jimmy Kimmel devoted five minutes of his show to Cecil's death.

He said, "The big question is why are you shooting a lion in the first place?"

Researchers at Northeastern University have studied human empathy for animals. In one experiment, people were given a false news story about a victim being beaten with a bat. The participants in the study were most upset when that "victim" was a 1-year-old child, followed by a puppy, then a dog and, finally, an adult human.

One of the researchers, Professor Jack Levin, told the Huffington Post, "Contrary to popular thinking, we are not necessarily more disturbed by animal rather than human suffering. Our results indicate a much more complex situation with respect to the age and species of victims, with age being the more important component."

That might suggest people have more empathy for humans and animals who can't take care of themselves.

Schreiner said some of our attachment to animals could come from our need to nurture. She also points out an evolutionary argument.

"Dogs and puppies and have large eyes in proportion to their bodies, and so do human babies," she said. "There's some thought that's evolutionarily built-in to make us nurture our own offspring."

Researchers also point out that when humans are crime victims, people don't often see photos or videos right away. When animals are victims, those images are more common and can resonate with us.

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