Anthropomorphism is defined as the attribution of human characteristics to an animal or object. We do it all the time – when we say our dog is happy we don’t truly know what they are feeling, we are interpreting it based on what we see as happy body language and what we perceive as a happy stimulus. Now a lot of the time we are not far off the mark – dogs enjoy walks, walks are good for dogs, we say our dog is happy when they go for a walk and we are probably correct. But there are times when anthropomorphism can become dangerous and can hinder us from doing the best thing for our animal friends.
For example I have worked with Macaques in Thailand, Laos and China. I learnt very quickly that they use complex body language and facial expressions to communicate. Our instinctual response to making friends with a primate, looking into their almost-human eyes, is to smile. Now smiling sounds nice but let us think about what we are really doing; baring our teeth, pulling back our lips and squinting our eyes… sounds kind of threatening. To a macaque a ‘smile’ can be used to show submission to a more dominant member of the group or as an aggressive signal depending on the remainder of their body language. For another funny Macaque story check out Cheeky Monkeys,
I have a soft spot for elephants, I love working with them and they are generally gentle and caring creatures. Many people know that elephants live in complex matriarchal social groups with deep bonds joining family members. An incident that has occurred numerous times that deeply disturbs me is the death of elephant babies in zoos. The below article discusses the “mothers vicious attack” that killed her newborn moments after death.
Now I am not disturbed because of the vicious mother, I am disturbed because a completely normal behavior has turned a caring and confused mother into a monster in the public eye. In the wild elephants give birth on dirt surrounded by predators. As soon as the baby is born the mother starts to kick the dirt around the baby, this helps cover the smell of birthing fluids to reduce the risk of predators but also creates a small dip in the ground. The indent allows the baby to roll its legs under itself which in turn means the baby is on its feet and moving quickly. In a zoo setting the mother elephant gives birth on a sterile concrete floor, but her instincts are still telling her to display this behavior, which can result in her trampling the baby out of an innate desire to perform a natural behaviour. The mother is then labeled as ‘vicious’ but I would argue that perhaps we are awarding the wrong species with that title.
Anthropomorphism can also sell our pets short – if we assume a dog sees the world we do we are in denial of their awesome ability of smell. It can also complicate scientific and behavioural research if we don’t review data objectively.
We also have the tendency to say things like ‘my dog urinated on my bed because he is mad I didn’t walk him’ – as far as we know dog’s do not feel spiteful or resentful. There is probably a perfectly reasonable explanation - we just cannot understand it!
When we anthropomorphize we are only trying to understand and make sense of animal behaviour. Our desire to see our animal friends through human eyes is not always bad; it does encourage good animal welfare. It is impossible to stop anthropomorphizing, we are only human after all, but next time you are interpreting a behavior try to see it through the animal's eyes too.