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Steve LEVITT: Oh, you know I love animals, and I particularly love giraffes.

That’s Steve Levitt, my Freakonomics friend and co-author. He’s a giraffe-loving economist at the University of Chicago.

LEVITT: One of the high points of my life was when a giraffe stuck his three-foot long tongue out and licked me all over the face.

Stephen J. DUBNER: Really, where did that happen? Was that in a private setting or in a zoo?

LEVITT: In Wisconsin Dells of all places. You can do anything in Wisconsin Dells.

DUBNER: And what was your response to that? Did you just fall in love with him?

LEVITT: It was crazy. I mean the tongue was amazing.

DUBNER: Any idea why he chose you?

LEVITT: Because I had a bunch of food.

DUBNER: Ah. Uh huh.

LEVITT: Which I had already purchased in order to get him to do that.

DUBNER: So, you already loved giraffes by the time that happened?

LEVITT: Absolutely.

DUBNER: So how would you have felt then, if five minutes after that that incredibly intense, intimate bonding moment, the zookeeper had come up and taken this giraffe and put a bullet in its head in front of your eyes and your kids’ eyes?

LEVITT: I would have felt outraged.

ANNOUNCER: From WNYC: This is Freakonomics Radio, the podcast that explores the hidden side of everything. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

OK, so as you may know, this scenario I described to Steve Levitt – the sudden and very public death of a zoo giraffe – wasn’t imaginary. It actually happened. At the Copenhagen Zoo, in Denmark. The giraffe was named Marius.

NEWS CLIP: Marius, a dewy-eyed, perfectly healthy, 18-month old giraffe, has been wandering in and out of his stall, blissfully unaware of his impending fate.

Here, speaking through an interpreter, is the veterinarian who did the deed:

NEWS CLIP: The giraffe walked out here at quarter past nine and was led out into its yard over there. Then there was a zookeeper with some rye bread. He really likes rye bread. And he said, “Here you go Marius, here’s some rye bread.” I stood behind with a rifle, and when he put his head forward, and ate the rye bread I shot him — straight through the brain.

Then the vet butchered Marius’ corpse, in front of a crowd, including lots of kids. The giraffe meat would be fed to the zoo’s lions, and tigers and polar bears. The zoo made clear that it killed Marius out of kindness, to some degree.

NEWS CLIP: Marius was two years old, healthy and happy, but not allowed to breed. Genetically too similar to the other giraffes. Copenhagen zoos said Marius would break European rules on inbreeding. Their view was that castrating Marius and not allowing him to be a father would be cruel. It was kinder to kill him.

Much of the world did not see it that way.


NEWS CLIP: I think it is wrong. You don’t put down a young and healthy animal. I know life is a cycle and lions don’t eat porridge. I know that.

NEWS CLIP: So outrage has escalated to death threats, that’s right, death threats against some of the staff at the Copenhagen Zoo.

It’s not hard to understand why so many people were so upset by the  public assassination of a zoo giraffe. Steve Levitt, who gets outraged at almost nothing, admits that even he would have felt outraged. So you’d think that if we can exhibit so much emotion and empathy over the fate of one animal, like Marius, we’d surely exhibit even more emotion and empathy over the fate of hundreds of thousands of the human animal … wouldn’t you?


Ammiel HIRSCH: Yeah, hi, Steve. How are you?

DUBNER: I’m great. How are you?

HIRSCH: I’m really good. Thanks.

Ammiel Hirsch is Senior Rabbi at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York City. He’s a friend of mine. The Stephen Wise congregation has a long tradition of being on the right side of history when it comes to human rights and civil rights.

DUBNER: We are speaking today because of a sermon I heard you give. I believe it was called “Obligations and Deeds.” But really the passage in particular that really struck me was the passage about the giraffe. So I’m wondering if you wouldn’t mind just reading or paraphrasing that brief part of the sermon for me?

HIRSCH: Sure, it struck me because if you recall that week, 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 world. 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.

DUBNER: So what does it say about us, whether the “us” is modern humans or just humans throughout time that we can get so upset over things with such relatively low stakes. I mean, look a giraffe, I feel bad for the giraffe, too, but it’s one giraffe in Copenhagen. So we can get upset over something that, but we don’t get very upset, I think most of us would agree, over a lot of real human suffering. The example you cite, the Syrian civil war. What does that say?

HIRSCH: It says we still have a lot of work to do. Now, we do that work by laws and by expectations and by obligations, by enormous education from the very beginning. We tap into something that on its face is good in the human character, which is compassion for animals. By the way, I would add parenthetically that Judaism has an enormous school of thought, and enormous teachings about the importance of being kind and compassionate to animals. But we also need to teach ourselves and our children priorities, you know, we need to establish priorities. That’s something that religion, too, is quite preoccupied with. That is, how do you decide what to do when, not that there is a black and white, good and evil that is completely clear, which is self-evident, but when there are competing goods or competing aims; how do you rank the good of not killing a giraffe in front of several dozen schoolchildren with not killing several dozen schoolchildren in some war-torn country? That’s really where we need to put our emphasis. And that’s hard, that’s hard thinking, that’s hard decision-making, that’s hard teaching and it requires us to make decisions on competing values.

DUBNER: As I hear you say this, I wonder if somehow we might choose to exercise outrage over something like, you know, a giraffe being killed in front of children more than children themselves being killed in Syria, in the Syrian civil war I think something like nearly 8,000 children are among the victims in that war. I wonder if partly we get outraged by the giraffe more because the human suffering is just too difficult for us, that it’s just too existentially painful?

HIRSCH: That might be. That might be. First of all, we are able to sympathize and empathize with people and with creatures who are in front of us. I walk across Central Park every day on the way to work, and there are of course dozens and dozens of dog owners walking their dogs, and I notice that people treat their pets with enormous sensitivity. Very often I see cases in the park where they treat animals with much greater sensitivity and compassion than they treat human beings.

So there are a number of ways to look at this, right? It may be, as I suggested to Rabbi Hirsch, that human suffering is just too painful for us to deal with. But we should also acknowledge that showing such widespread compassion to animals is a positive step in the course of human development. Here’s how Steve Levitt thinks about this, from an economist’s perspective.

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 was just, to a Westerner, was outrageous. They would eat anything, seemingly. And things were skinned and cats were in cages, I mean it was crazy. 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. And people had gone in just five years, China had boomed in wealth, from literally eating anything they could find to deciding it was fun to have animals for pets. And it really hit home to me the idea that when you’re hungry and poor, the only thing you want out of an animal is to serve your needs. And then once you get rich, and not so hungry, then you want animals to play with. And that’s what’s happening with the U.S. with organic and happy meat and stuff like that.

DUBNER: Did you just call it happy meat?

LEVITT: Yeah, what do they call it?

DUBNER: Yeah, happy meat.  That’s what they call it.

DUBNER: Now, Levitt, how do you feel about guacamole?

LEVITT: I love guacamole.

DUBNER: Do you feel any moral qualms about eating guacamole, let’s say?

LEVITT: I have never had one moral qualm about eating guacamole.

DUBNER: Can I give you a reason to perhaps consider having a moral qualm about guacamole?

LEVITT: Sure, it will only make me worse off but go ahead and do it.

DUBNER: If you’d rather me not spoil it for you I don’t have to.

LEVITT: No, I am willing to take the hit so our listeners can get the pleasure of watching me suffer.

Coming up on Freakonomics Radio: If you’re going to feel bad about animals being killed – whether for food or because of their genetic makeup – then you may want to reexamine your feelings about avocados.

Jose DE CORDOBA: There are no conflict-free avocados.

And… could it just be that humans are our least-favorite animal?

LEVITT: I mean, my kids would gladly trade a human for a polar bear any day of the week.

ANNOUNCER: From WNYC: This is Freakonomics Radio. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

DUBNER: Hi, Jose?

DE CORDOBA: Yeah, hi, how are you?

DUBNER: Good. This is Stephen Dubner. Nice to meet you.

DE CORDOBA: Hey, Stephen, same here.

I recently had a conversation with a fellow named Jose de Cordoba.

DE CORDOBA: I am a reporter for The Wall Street Journal based in Mexico. I not only cover Mexico, but large areas in Latin America, depending where the news is coming from.

A few months back, de Cordoba wrote an article in The Wall Street Journal that, for whatever reason, did not provoke the kind of outrage that accompanied the killing of Marius the giraffe, but after hearing his story, you may wonder why it didn’t.

DE CORDOBA: It was totally random. I wasn’t looking to do a story about avocados at all. I was going to do a profile.

The man he wanted to profile was a vigilante leader who was trying to get other people to join him in fighting a crime-and-drug cartel known as the “Knights Templar.”

DE CORDOBA: It used to be called “La Familia,” and now it’s known as the “Knights Templar.” They’re basically a huge extortion operation. They extort everybody and everything in Michoacan. Everything that moves is extorted.

So, de Cordoba was in the state of Michoacan, which is on Mexico’s Pacific Coast, and he was following this vigilante leader around…

DE CORDOBA: We ended up in this little town, Tancitaro, up in the mountains, which is the setting of the story.

He had no idea how big the avocado industry is in this area.

DE CORDOBA: We entered the town through avocado groves. Then we passed this little statue of an avocado right in front of the town and took note of that.

As it turns out, 80 percent of the avocados sold in the U.S. are grown in Michoacan, about 500,000 tons of avocados a year. More than 150,000 tons come from this one town, Tancitaro. But it wasn’t just the avocado statue that caught de Cordoba’s eye when he drove into town.

DE CORDOBA: There were two burnt out giant packing — export packing houses, big, you know, big, big businesses, for the area. And they were burnt down on the same night.

So what happened? As best as he could tell, these avocado packing houses got torched because their owners didn’t pay the local criminal gang, the Knights Templar, the protection money they were supposed to.

DE CORDOBA: I was able to talk to a small packer and he gave me the details about what he was paying. Growers who know the big packers say they’re paying for anything from $15,000 a month to $20,000 a month.

DUBNER: And it’s not just getting a cut from sales of the avocados themselves, and the packing and the trucking. You write that there’s a cut of, let’s say, fertilizer sales, and so on, yes?

DE CORDOBA: Yeah, all up the production chain, people have to pay off the Templars, or were paying of the Templars, you know, the guys who provide the fertilizers, the guys who provide the insecticide, the people who produce the workers to go out and harvest the avocados, the trucks that transport the avocados to the packing houses and so on.

DUBNER: OK, and what happens if I’m a trucker, or a packing firm or a farm, and I decide to not pay you?

DE CORDOBA: Well you’ve got big problems. If you’re a grower and this may happen anyway,  you might have a family member kidnapped and held for ransom.

That is exactly what happened to one local avocado grower.

DE CORDOBA: What happened was that the daughter of a local Jehovah’s Witnesses preacher, a person who was much esteemed in the area, Maria Irene Villanueva, was kidnapped back in, that was in November. And she was kidnapped by the local Templar head, a guy named El Seco, “the dry one.” And he demanded an 8 million peso-ransom for her which was something like $600,000. The father who owned a small avocado grove basically couldn’t come up with the money. So what he was going to do was he was going to give the Templars his avocado grove in payment for this daughter. In the middle of all this, for some reason, she was killed, she was murdered she was shot.

This murder, de Cordoba says, swung the local momentum in favor of the vigilantes. And in some places, the Knights Templar are in retreat. But it’s a tenuous retreat at best. They are a powerful – and profitable – organization. Last year, they made an estimated $150 million.

DE CORDOBA: They’re named after the Knights Templars, a medieval order of warrior monks. But they are enormously violent. And what has happened is they used to be, their main source of income was trafficking marijuana, meth and cocaine. But they have branched out. And now they get by far, I think, much more of their income from all their different extortion rackets, which go from extorting avocados, to extorting iron ore mines to extorting forest products. But they extort also everybody. So, if you are from a national pharmacy chain and you want to open up a pharmacy in some town in Michoacan you’re going to have to make a payment there. The tortilla makers pay extortion to these guys, everybody does.

DUBNER: When’s the last time you had an avocado?

DE CORDOBA: I eat them most days. I love avocados.

DUBNER: Has this changed you consumption at all or no?

CORDOBA: No, I love eating avocados. As a matter of fact, I think I’m eating more since I went up there.

DUBNER: You don’t try to seek out kind of conflict-free avocados?

DE CORDOBA: There are no conflict-free avocados…No.

So if you live in the U.S. and you eat avocados – or mangos, or limes or other produce from Mexico – there’s a good chance that some of the money you paid supports a violent criminal gang. So that guacamole you’re eating? Made from blood avocados. So where’s the outrage over that? If we’re going to shed a tear over Marius the giraffe, how about we do the same for Maria Irene Villanueva, the preacher’s daughter who was allegedly murdered by the Mexican gang because her father didn’t pay his avocado protection money? The animal-rights movement has gained a lot of strength in recent years, and most of us would agree that’s a good thing. Some people have given up eating animals entirely to honor that movement. But the closer you look at what we eat – and what we consume, more generally – the more confusing the moral calculus becomes. So should we stop eating avocados and mangoes and limes, too? Jose de Cordoba, the Wall Street Journal reporter in Mexico, he doesn’t think so.

DE CORDOBA: If you do that you’re going to be —  como se llama? — throwing a hell of a lot of people out of business in Mexico. And they, you know, that’s about the only business that, in that area that is, you know, the one and only business. I really do think it’s a Mexican problem. I don’t think the U.S. consumer should, you know, have to carry the weight of Mexico’s blood avocados on their shoulders, or whatever. You know, I mean, Mexico has to get its act together in terms of justice, in terms of being a state of law, you know. You can’t allow these guys to run around and do this extortion.

LEVITT: I really think of the market as somehow getting me out of any moral obligation.

That’s Steve Levitt again.

LEVITT: I mean when I go to the store, if the grocery store wants to sell me meat at some price then the world’s too complicated for me to try to figure out every transaction along the way and whether it was fair and whether it was fair to the people or the animals, and so I just figure that’s the problem someone else has got to work out — the government, or the producers, or the ethicists. They figure out what’s right and wrong. And then, I feel like if I am doing a market transaction, I don’t really need necessarily to feel any guilt about it.

DUBNER: Alright, so let me ask you this: Person A, not you, not me, Person A walks into a restaurant and has a choice between eating, let’s say, some chicken that has been raised and slaughtered in a traditional manner, meaning it is not happy meat, right. It hasn’t had the most wonderful chicken life ever. Have a choice between eating the chicken that may have suffered or the guacamole made from the avocados which have an extortion tax built in, some of which money went to criminals who may have tortured, killed, kidnapped, raped the people associated with growing avocados. What’s a person to do?

LEVITT: Well, my basic answer, which is a horrible answer, which people will hate, is that any individual person can’t really do anything. And…

DUBNER: That’s not what Gandhi said.

LEVITT: I mean, it is tough. I mean obviously there is a pull and there is maybe a warmth and a goodness that comes from saying, “Having learned this I won’t eat avocados again. Having learned about the way chickens are raised, I will not eat chickens.” But there is a pragmatism that comes with trying to live your life. And is it really true that anything will change in the avocado region if I stop eating guacamole? Well, no. So, it’s one of those things where you can take an action because it matters, because it actually affects outcomes and other people’s lives and prices and how the avocados are made, or you can make an action because it’s the right thing to do and because it feels good to do the right thing and because it is important to do the right thing. But I think it helps to be able to separate those two in your mind. I think people who do the right thing a lot, they get confused. And they think that by doing the right thing like not eating avocados people get the idea that somehow they are making the world a better place, but they really are not. You know. The first order what they are doing is they are making themselves feel good and they are not affecting what I would call, say, “the equilibrium.” But that is great. That’s fine. But I think it is important when you make sacrifices to understand what your sacrifice actually accomplishes and what it fails to accomplish.

DUBNER: That’s a good way of putting it. So it strikes me that we humans are pretty good at selective outrage. We get really distraught about one type of offense, maybe it’s a moral offense, whereas another one that may be very similar and may even be much larger and more egregious we don’t get upset about, just because of the nature of what that offense is. So as a friend pointed out when this giraffe was murdered in cold blood in this Copenhagen zoo the world was aghast. And yet at the very same time in Syria, and in many other places, there was horrible violence against humans happening that the world didn’t care about at all. So is this just a function of the way we filter information and get a little bit and act on what we hear and that’s just the way it is, or does it say something about our, kind of, appetite to get upset about things where the stakes kind of are lower? I mean really, you know, one dead giraffe in a zoo really doesn’t really affect any of us; whereas, tens or hundreds of thousands of people in some country being tormented, the stakes are very high, and yet we don’t seem to be able to do anything about that, either.

LEVITT: Yeah, I think what it really tells us is about the power of a good story. And Marius is an amazing story. It has all the elements that make stories exciting and good and moral and telling. And Syria isn’t. Syria is a mess. Who knows what is going on in Syria. And indeed, I think a story about a single Syrian person is a thousand times more powerful than a story about 1,000 Syrian people dying. And that to me ultimately, it’s one of the things we talk about in the new book is the power of storytelling. You know, both for good and for evil, and I think that is what is going on. Marius is the greatest story ever.

Maybe that’s all it is. Maybe Marius caught the world’s attention because it was a particularly gripping story. But it could also be that, as much as we humans talk the talk about caring for our fellow humans, when it’s time to walk the walk, we actually prefer non-human animals. The kind of animal that doesn’t talk – and so can’t say something we disagree with. The kind of animal that hasn’t made some sort of stupid or malicious decision that we morally object to. The kind of animal that we learn to love so much that not only do we never want to eat it but we’d do anything we can to save its life.

LEVITT: You know it is funny, and I learned this from my kids, but really people, unless you press them, their natural reaction is to like animals better than other people. And you can see it with polar bears. Right? The most effective thing that the climate change people have ever done is to show polar bears floating on little ice blocks in the Arctic Ocean. I mean, my kids would gladly trade a human for a polar bear any day of the week.

DUBNER: Levitt, a listener named Rebecca Pearce wrote in with a scenario, OK, it’s question, you have to answer it. You are standing alone in the Arctic with a gun, which sounds like a place I can imagine Levitt being. Suddenly you are attacked by a polar bear, the absolute last one left on earth. Do you kill it, or yourself?

LEVITT: Who sent us this question?

DUBNER: Her name is Rebecca Pearce and she is a university student in London.

LEVITT: OK, Rebecca, let me just say this: If there is only one polar bear left that means there aren’t going to be any polar bears in the future and whether I kill that polar bear now or it dies on its own in a few years doesn’t matter so I definitely do everything I can to kill the polar bear.

DUBNER: Not the answer I was expecting. So kind of on a technicality you’re gonna, right?

LEVITT: If there were two polar bears — a girl bear and a boy bear — then it would be a much harder choice.

DUBNER: And Levitt, yeah, but I was imagining you were going to try to line yourself and the bear up with one bullet. That’s the answer I was envisioning.

LEVITT: [Laughs]

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