Animal Studies Bibliography
Changing Attitudes Toward California's Cougars
Jennifer R. Wolch, Andrea Gullo, and Unna Lassiter
Society and Animals 1997, v. 5, n. 2, pg. 95-116
Wildlife managers often choose to consider public attitudes before making serious decisions concerning management issues because studies have shown that attitudes remain positive even when there is direct conflict between nature and human populations. Attitudes surveys play an important role in wildlife management decisions. Media texts have a vital role in shaping opinions while at the same time, reflects the nature of changing attitudes. This article considers the effect of print media, specifically the LA Times , on public attitudes toward California's Cougars over a span of ten years. The article begins by offering some background to the debate over the recreational hunting of cougars in California. Since 1970, the cougar population has almost tripled and human encounters gradually have became more frequent as urban sprawl encroached on cougar territory. Recreational hunting of cougars was legal until 1972 when a series of legislation made it illegal to hunt cougars. In 1996, due to the increased human/cougar incidents, Proposition 197 was proposed which would again legalize the hunting of cougars.
This study performed a content analysis of 79 Times articles, both reportive and editorial, which were organized into eight categories: date of article, location of newspaper, two most heavily emphasized substantive topics discussed in any one article, descriptive terminology of cougars, identity of spokesperson, attitude expressed in the article, and overall tone of article. The tone was determined to be either neutral, positive/supportive if the cougars were discussed as being a valued part of nature, or negative/oppositional if the cougars were described as disruptive or a threat. Factors such as attitudes presented, terminology used, photographs/illustrations , and information biases were considered to determine predominant tone. This study also used Kellert's typology of attitudes toward animals to guide the analysis of individual statements made in the coverage. Attitudes which viewed animals as resources for human use and/or domination were considered utilitarian or dominionistic. Attitudes which expressed kindness towards animals and their ethical treatment were considered humanistic or moralistic. Scientistic attitudes focused on the scientific study of animals while the ecologistic attitudes focused on animals as components of the ecology. Attitudes which reflected a lack of concern or any negative sentiments toward the animals were considered neutralistic or negativistic.
Of the 79 articles, 43% were shown to have a supportive tone, 35% had a negative tone, and 22% were neutral. Of the 34 supportive articles, 18 expressed concern for the safety of the cougars while 25 responded to proposed changes in legislation. Anti-hunting sentiments were expressed in over 70% of the supportive articles, arguing that hunting was inhumane and it wouldn't reduce conflicts. On the other hand, negative articles portrayed cougars as disruptive to urban life, a nuisance to society, or a threat to human safety. All negative articles included descriptions of cougar attacks. Over all, 8 (10%) of the articles received front page coverage and only one was supportive. 19 photos accompanied negative articles while only 5 accompanied supportive articles. 34% of the articles were editorials and 88% of those were supportive in their tone. Only 18% of the straight reportage articles were determined to have a supportive tone. As far as attitude is concerned, scientistic, dominionistic, and ecologistic attitudes prevailed in the 79 articles analyzed. Aesthetic, naturalistic, and utilitarian attitudes were represented in less than 1% of the articles. Overriding attitudes present in positive articles were ecologistic (37%), scientistic (31%), and moralistic (17%) while dominionism (50%) and negativism (46%) were the most common attitudes displayed in the negative articles.
Coverage peaked twice, in 1987 and in 1995, during the year following a high-profile attack. In general, the negative articles slowly increased, however; editorial articles remained positive. These types of articles are a direct reflection of public sentiment because they are written by the public. So, although readers were exposed to more negative reporting on cougar-related incidence and political struggles, public opinion remained positive as previous studies have shown is often the case. In the end, Proposition 197 was voted down. The authors attribute the positive attitude toward cougars to the urban setting of the issue. A great majority of the LA Times readers who were also the voting population, lived in urban areas. Urbanization is strongly associated with a decline in recreational hunting as well as stronger moralistic/humanistic attitudes. Voters as a whole tend to be more familiar with environmental issues and animal rights than the non-voting population. This study shows the vital importance media texts have in both shaping and reflecting public attitudes on wildlife management issues.