Which Came First, the Chicken or the Avocado? (Ep. 164)

Listen now:
(Photo: Phalinn Ooi)

(Photo: Phalinn Ooi)

This week’s podcast is about selective outrage — why we get so upset over some things, and then not over others. It’s called “Which Came First, the Chicken or the Avocado?” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

We start with Marius the giraffe. Marius lived at a zoo in Copenhagen. Zoo officials said he was a “surplus” animal: too genetically similar to other giraffes, and therefore he couldn’t breed. It was kinder, they said, to kill him. So they fed him some rye bread (“his favorite food”), shot him in the head, and dissected him in front of a crowd of onlookers, including kids. Next they fed his corpse to the lions. Perhaps not surprisingly, the world reacted with outrage.

How did this compare to the outrage expressed over the killing of more than 146,000 people during the ongoing civil war in Syria? Not quite commensurate. Ammiel Hirsch, senior rabbi at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York, noticed this disparity, and he talks about it with Stephen Dubner:

HIRSCH: If you recall there was saturation coverage of a Danish zoo that killed a giraffe in front of dozens of schoolchildren and fed it to the lions. And it struck me that that received so much attention and so much publicity — not that I’m in favor of killing giraffes, in general, or killing any animals, let alone in front of children — but it was at the time when there was such savagery around the word, and in particular, hundreds of people in that week were butchered in Syria, and there was such little coverage about that event, and so much coverage about the killing of one giraffe that it simply struck me that that probably says something about how we think and about the nature of our society.

Steve Levitt says that outrage over Marius’s death, and the increased level of compassion people have for animals, is overall a positive sign for society:

LEVITT: I think being nice to animals is a luxury good. I remember when I first went to China 14 years ago to adopt my daughter and we went to an open-air market. And the animals they had to eat and the circumstances of these animals were just, to a Westerner, outrageous… And then when I went back about five years later, to the same open-air market, what just amazed me is that suddenly they had a big section of the open-air market that was devoted to fish tanks. In just five years, China had boomed in wealth. [They went] from literally eating anything they could find, to deciding it was fun to have animals for pets.

You will also hear from Wall Street Journal reporter Jose de Cordoba, whose article about the Mexican avocado trade perhaps should have outraged people but didn’t. De Cordoba explains how most avocados eaten in the U.S. are “blood avocados,” made to pass through a criminal cartel that extorts, kidnaps, and kills.

And finally, big thanks to listener Rebecca Pearce. She wrote to us with a question that gets Levitt and Dubner wondering what’s more valuable: the life of a polar bear or the life of an economist.

Addendum: We made a mistake in this episode when we said Marius the giraffe was killed in front of a group of people. He was dissected in front of a crowd, but euthanized in private. We regret the error.


A reason I think we care more about animals at times than people is because we look at humans as moral agents with free will and therefore we blame them for almost everything. We even blame people for where they were born, and what they were born into because we think people have this unlimited free will.
We human see animals as non moral agents with no free will therefore only seeing them as just so innocent of their surroundings.



Humans aren't just moral agents but competitors. Less of you means more for me. I think predominately though it is like they said in the podcast. One, there isn't much I can do. Anything I do isn't going to amount to much but I can make a zoo think twice if breeding is a problem killing an animal publicly. Two, it is all about the story and the pitch made to you by media. The tear jerking pieces about a single person would probably have more impact. Not that they died but graphic telling of how. Not maybes like the things implied or unseen in the avocado farmer's daughter but if someone was dragged into the town square and shot and the story told about that. And that 20% come from somewhere else and I can't tell if mine is or isn't blood stained, I can easily justify that mine is part of the 20%.

Eric M. Jones

You missed considering the Be-Kind-To-Animals propaganda from Walt Disney, et al. having a huge influence on human thought and behavior. My feelings about Marius the giraffe are more economic than emotional. Isn't there a market for live giraffes? I put him on Ebay (sale pending proof of ability to care for him).

Steve Nations

What does the zoo feed to the lions when there are no giraffes to kill? Surely not hay and oats and the occasional piece of fruit.


It was an efficient use of the waste. Better than throwing it all in the trash. Economically, I am sure some rich guy would love to have some on his table and would pay dearly for some.


I am a big fan of Freakonomics. I’ve listened to all of the podcasts, read the books and watched the movie. I have to say this is the worst Freakonomics podcast I’ve heard from you guys. Normally your stories are well thought out and logical, but this one ignores basic logic and makes bad assumptions so that you can tell the story you want to tell.

The premise that we are more outraged over the death of one giraffe then we are over thousands of Syrians is because we like animals more than humans is ridiculous. The two situations are completely different. The giraffe was a unique situation in that it was in a zoo and killed by its caretakers when other more humane options were discarded. The most important characteristic of this story is that it’s shocking. We haven’t heard of anything like this before so it’s easy to get outraged quickly. On the other hand, the Syrian situation is all too familiar. We have millennia of experience with humanity’s cruelty to other humans. There are plenty of people outraged over Syria, but we’ve all seen or heard it before. There is nothing the average person can do about it. We don’t even have any symbolic things like stop eating chicken or avocados to make ourselves feel better.

Let’s flip the example around to prove my point. We humans literally eat millions of animals a day, but with the exception of a few small groups like PETA no one bats an eye. However, if someone eats one human everyone gets mad, disgusted, and outraged. Does this mean that humans are our favorite animal?

Let’s also not forget that there are thousands of animals slaughtered on animal preserves in Africa for their tusks, horns, meat, and pelts. There is a lot of outrage about this as well, but again there is very little the average person can do about it.

Normally, the podcast is great, and I really enjoy listening to it. However, this one missed the mark and it was difficult to listen to because you so missed or ignored the obvious. You started to get there in the end when it was suggested that the giraffe had a better story, but never went all the way. Please do better next time.



Yeah, the premise of the show was seriously flawed. It is kind of superficially interesting trying to compare uncomperable moral situations such as blood avocados vs veganism.

Dan Palmer

How about we acknowledge the ethical issues with our food supply and other goods, do what we can to buy goods that contribute the least to the above issues and then go on with our lives knowing that while we can't save the world on our own we should be aware of our choices and their impact on it.

Why do we either have to feel bad all the time and take action or just ignore the ethical issues altogether and be mindless, pragmatic consumers.
Consuming is a wasting disease, you know.

We like OTHER animal species (you are merely a hairless ape with a calculator, Levitt) better than homo sapiens because they - most other species, perhaps not apes so much - do not engage in denial and belief like we do and are purer beings for it.

My dog would never go to war over something as useless as a belief.
She also lets you know right away how she feels about you, she can't/doesn't lie.

In other words...we like other species because they are not full of $h..



Part of the outrage for Marius' death is because it happened in Denmark. Nobody would've cared if it was in a Chinese or South African zoo. This is the imagined moral superiority of the Western world.

Larry Nocella

Good podcast, Freak Overlords. Some thoughts -

1. You are basing your measurement of outrage on the amount of media coverage. This seems a flawed way to measure "outrage." If media coverage always paralleled actual interest then we could take CNN's wall-to-wall non-stop up-to-eleven coverage of MH370 as evidence the missing plane was the only subject anyone cared about ever at all.

2. That said, I think a better selective outrage example worth noting is that GW Bush and the Iraq war killed 4,000 Americans. 9/11 killed 3,000. Benghazi killed 4. What is the focus of the labled "conservative" movement? Benghazi. That's some serious selective outrage clearly driven by a pro-Republican, anti-Democratic agenda. But again, is it real, or based on media?

3. You're a right an individual can't do much regarding the market. But I can tell you when I started eating vegetarianish, there was nothing vegan/vegetarian-labeled in the store. Now there are whole sections. I didn't do that alone, but I was one member of a consumer niche that made it happen.

Keep Freaking, My Freak Friends,

Larry Nocella
The Beanie-Copter Philosopher



Some thoughts

1. I thought CNN has had a ratings bonanza with the plane coverage. I thought they had a huge increase during their coverage. Basing your interest in the media isn't the populations interest. Media coverage may not be a perfect proxy for public interest but as a commercial interest media outlets need viewers and so they need to give them the material they want or someone else will.

2. Again, the Iraq/Benghazi paradox is probably due to the same phenomena that we are talking about. A stat isn't as jarring as a single incident with a story. Doesn't play on emotions. Saying this many people die from smoking isn't causing us to universally ban it. Politicization also probably puts blinders on the people, like the outrage of Gitmo 8 years ago and today may have to do with the the letter next to the majority being D now instead of R.

3. I agree. I always think that economists look at their own action in the margin for their actions but forget that any actions by a group starts with one and influence moves out. Influence also isn't proportional per person. Someone that, say, has a radio show and podcast that has a following can influence change by living and advocating something more than if they were just an average random Joe on the street.



Seems like there are a lot of levels to this. At the most basic economic level, it's just a matter of supply & demand. There are, per Google, something under 100,000 giraffes left in the world (and the population is declining), versus some 7 billion humans, so any random giraffe ought to be worth quite a bit more than a random human.

Then there's the offensive stupidity of their rationale for killing the giraffe. Pass over the bit about it being kinder to kill him - that's just emotion. They could almost certainly have sold him, dead or alive, for far more than he was worth as lion chow.

As for the moral aspect, where is it written (outside the texts of certain religions that I don't follow) that I should have to love humans in general? I care about my friends & acquaintances (who are about equally divided between humans and non-humans). At a higher level, I care about having healthy ecosystems*, because I & my friends have to live in those ecosystems. But in between? Whether it's lions killing giraffes in the wild, or humans killing each other over religion & politics, my emotions aren't really engaged.

*I include human politics as part of a ecosystem.


Joachim Schoder

Listening to the Podcast I got the strong feeling that you didn't talk to a single animal rights activist before deciding on "why we care more about animals than humans"?

About myself: I am a vegan for 13 years and an animal rights activist for 12 years and I was born and raised in Germany. And I think I can help with the misconceptions.

Please check the numbers of donations made to animal welfare and animal right organizations and compare it to the donations made for humans, especially small children. I only know the numbers for Germany but I presume the numbers are pretty similar in the US. Human-related charities get way more money than animal-related charities. I am not saying this is a good thing or a bad thing. It just shows that the assumption that "we" care more about animals simply might not be correct. We just care strongly about our chosen families and pets are very often a part of those families.

Another point: You said something very true. We should distinguish between between what we can change and what just feels right. But I would like to add one additional factor. The severity of an injustice should also influence our decision. And to me the unnecessary killing of billions (no typo - billions) of animals is a problem which creates a lot of problems itself. And if enough people stop buying animal products the number of suffering animals will drop as the market shrinks. Of course it would be naive to expect a 1:1-transaction where the animal I today decide not eat for dinner miraculously doesn't get breed and killed.



Fitting with the Selective Outrage topic, around St. Louis, there have been a few news events about dogs. One being one dog killing another dog at a dog-park and another about a man setting fire to a dog whose owner owed him money. There was big outcry on the former event, and the latter man was sentenced to four years of prison time.

Near my old apartment, a drunk driver that killed a cyclist with her car was sentenced to only one year. I often quip about Michael Vick being sentenced to two years in prison for dog fighting and compare that to other crimes, and it often seems human life is valued less that animal life in these cases.

It strikes me as an interesting, albeit macabre, topic that prison sentences be a function of the value of life*% of blame assigned to defendent in crime, with punitive % attached in years?


Do you have data for any of the claims made in this podcast? Some of your episodes are great and your claims are well supported, but this one was just extremely limited speculation about an interesting idea. What an economist who has no data thinks about psychology and what little kids think of animals are hardly representative of the rest of the world. Do a study, read some papers, and then please come back with more convincing information.

Allan Murphy

Marius became an issue because he was a cute exotic animal. Would there have been the same outrage if he had been a snake or an octopus or how about a chicken?

In spite of the media coverage, the similarity between Marius and the Syrians is that he is dead and Syrians are dying. Coverage does not always bring about results. Couldn't another zoo have adopted Marius?

This begs the question: with the exception of preserving endangered species, are zoos really necessary? Do they provide any educational information that cannot be provided online with webcams etc? I'm not even going to mention dolphin shows.

One of my favorite "Calvin and Hobbes" strips went something like this:

Calvin: Let's visit the zoo this afternoon, Hobbes.
Hobbes: Great! Then, let's tour a prison.
They stayed home and played in the garden.

As for avocados, many items / products come with baggage that most of us do not wish to think about and / or have no idea how to improve: coffee, cacao, blood diamonds, clothes made in Bangladeshi sweatshops etc. Which is worse: dirty tar sands oil from Canada that comes from a country with a clean human rights record or clean oil (relatively speaking) that comes from Middle _eastern countries with dirty human rights records?

Once again, a very stimulating podcast. Many thanks.



Easy. A polar bear. There are more economists than polar bears, so simple supply and demand would apply.


there isn’t much I can do.

Shane L

I haven't listened to the podcast yet so forgive me if this was already mentioned, but you remind me of the 18th century artist and campaigner William Hogarth who created several engravings depicting various moral failings and their inevitable sad outcomes.

In one series of engravings, Hogarth described "The Four Stages of Cruelty". It begins with a picture of boys savagely torturing cats, dogs and birds. It's really quite shocking.

The Second Stage again shows abuse of animals, with horse and sheep being brutally thrashed and other animals overladen. (It also shows the first stage of cruelty towards people: a little boy is being run over by probably a drunk man in a cart.)

The Third Stage depicts a robbery and murder, while the final stage has the grisly scene of the murderer's corpse being dissected by scientists while a dog gnaws as his discarded heart.

Interesting that as early as 1751 there was some awareness in England that abusive behaviour towards animals was obnoxious and perhaps indicated a cruelty that may be applied to people too.



Levitt's entire argument boils down to "don't vote, you can't change anything." Ridiculous. I will eat California avocados only.