Recently I was watching a television program about a group of researchers from the University of Cambridge who undertook a 2 year study on the behavioural traits of meerkats. The program went into detail about the way in which meerkats teach their pups how to hunt (ABC Science 2006). The adult meerkats were shown actively teaching their young to take the stinger off a scorpion, making it safe to eat (National Geographic 2006). The program described these animals and their teaching habits as being ‘just like humans’.
According to Barras (2008), “animals behavioural studies are blurring the boundaries between humans and animals.” Our tendency to anthropomorphize is increasingly common as the barrier between humans and animals weakens.
Anthropomorphism is defined as “the attributing of human characteristics and purposes to intimate objects, animals, plants, or other natural phenomena.” (The American Heritage 2005). The act of anthropomorphism is something I have been exposed to from a young age due to movies making animals ‘come alive’.
Take for example ‘Bambi’ (1943), Last time I checked, deers do not talk. However the adventures of Bambi (who amazingly knows how to speak the English language), include ice skating, singing and making friends with other talking animals such as birds, rabbits and owls (Disney-Pixar 2017). As a young child, this movie made me believe that animals really could talk, hence why I so easily attributed human characteristics to all of my childhood pets.
Through-out my childhood, the anthropomorphism kept coming from TV shows such as Corneil and Bernie to Selby, a series of books featuring the only talking dog in Australia (Duncan Ball N.D). It seemed like second nature to me to attribute such human-like characteristics to animals. After all, I spent 6 years of my life honestly believing that dogs could actually talk.
Anthropomorphism is constantly appearing online. From videos of dancing birds to talking cats, footage of animals behaving like humans has gone viral. According to Holly Dunsworth, an anthropologist at the University of Rhode Island, “it’s like the internet was built for anthropomorphizing animals.” (Milman 2016). And she’s not wrong. There’s nothing more than satisfying than seeing a video in your Facebook newsfeed of a furry critter talking to their humans.
So why is it that we are so set on giving animals human traits?
According to Nauert (2015), we are quite selective in what we anthropomorphize. This selectively comes from similarity with the things we apply human traits to. “An entity is more likely to be anthropomorphized if it appears to have many traits similar to those of humans” (Nauert 2015). We as humans are able to relate to animals for a number of reasons. A study by Liverpool John Moores University revealed that animals share many of the same emotions as humans, as well as behavioural traits such as grooming, hygiene habits and social relationships (phys.org 2005). However according to Serpell (2002), “the attribution of human mental states to non-human animals” is just another distinction of anthropomorphism.
Whilst animals do share some of the same characteristics as you and I, they are far from being human, so is it wrong to apply such traits to them? Patricia Ganea, psychologist at Toronto University, believes anthropomorphism leads to an unrealistic understanding of biological processes (Milman 2016). She adds, “It can also lead to inappropriate behaviors towards wild animals, such as trying to adopt a wild animal as a ‘pet’ or misinterpreting the actions of a wild animal.”
Take for example the story of Tilikum, a killer whale who was kept in captivity at Sea World, Orlando who quickly became a famous amusement at the park. Tilikum had a demanding schedule at Sea World, performing live shows for huge audiences each and every day (Sea World of Hurt 2017). Depsite Sea World trainers claiming they had ‘a close relationship’ with the Orca, being kept in captivity caused stress for the mammal. Over time his frustration built up, leading to aggressive behaviour towards humans. During his time at Sea World Tilikum was responsible for killing 3 trainers (Howard 2017).
This is just one example of how anthropomorphism can have negative consequences. As much as we want to pretend animals are just like humans, there are clear differences in our behaviours. Animals are not equipped to be treated a human and crossing that line, in some circumstances, can be dangerous.
Personally, I believe anthropomorphism itself doesn’t cause negative consequences. It is the way in which one interacts with animals that can cause problems to occur. It’s important to treat animals as animals. Whilst some animals are human-like, ultimately they will never be a human, so we must not treat them like they are.
Until next time,
ABC Science 2006, ‘Meerkats teach their young to hunt’, ABC, 14 July, viewed 25 March 2017, <http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2006/07/14/1686635.htm?site=science/demonstrations&topic=latest&listaction=unsubscribe>.
Barras, C 2008, Meerkats attend scorpion hunting kindergarten, New Scientist, viewed 25 March 2017, <https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn13807-meerkats-attend-scorpion-hunting-kindergarten/>.
Disney-Pixar 2017, Bambi, Disney-Pixar, viewed 25 March 2017, <http://movies.disney.com.au/bambi>.
Duncan Ball N.D, Selby, Ramble, viewed 26 March 2017, <https://www.duncanball.com.au/books_selby.html>.
Howard, B 2017, ‘Why Tilikum, SeaWorld’s Killer Orca, Was Infamous’, National Geographic, 6 January, viewed 27 March 2017, <http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/01/tilikum-seaworld-orca-killer-whale-dies/>.
Milman, O 2016, ‘Anthropomorphism: how much humans and animals share is still contested’, The Guardian, 16 January, viewed 26 March 2017, <https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/jan/15/anthropomorphism-danger-humans-animals-science>.
National Geographic 2006, ‘Meerkats Teach Pups How to Eat Risky Food, Study Says’, National Geographic, 6 July, viewed 25 March 2017, <http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/07/060713-meerkats_2.html>.
Nauert, R 2015, ‘Why do we anthropomorphize?’ Psych Central, 6 October, viewed 26 March 2017, <https://psychcentral.com/news/2010/03/01/why-do-we-anthropomorphize/11766.html>
Phys.org 2005, Animals and Humans Experience the Same Emotions, Science X Network, viewed 27 March 2017, <https://phys.org/news/2005-09-animals-human-emotions.html>.
Sea World of Hurt 2017, Over 30 Years and Three Deaths: Tilikum’s Tragic Story, PETA, viewed 27 March 2017, <http://www.seaworldofhurt.com/features/30-years-three-deaths-tilikums-tragic-story/>.
Serpell, J A 2002, ‘Anthropomorphism and anthropomorphic selection beyond the “cute response”’, Society and Amimals: Journal of Human-Animal Studies, vol. 10, no. 4, pp. 83-100.