The memories of childhood are filled with adventurous dogs, Angry Beavers, a talking Cow and Chicken and a Big Blue Bear that sings songs (to name a few). It has not been until now that I’ve started to consider why animals with human characteristics populate so many childhood stories. Fast forward to the present and although I rarely watch cartoons with talking animals (unless it’s Disney of course), there are still very prominent examples of anthropomorphism within the real world. Throughout this post, I aim to explore the how’s and the why’s of anthropomorphism, both within literature and real life.
Anthropomorphism involves assigning a human trait to an animal or object (Burke, C & Copenhaver, J 2004) and is most commonly seen in literature. In almost every Disney story, there is an example this (Mickey Mouse, Alice in Wonderland, The Jungle Book). Often the animals that can speak resemble a humanness presence where a real human would normally exist, e.g. Sebastian the crab is the advisor and court composter to King Triton in The Little Mermaid and in The Jungle Book, Mowgli, the human boy, is raised in a surrogate family of wolves. Animal characters are usually portrayed as heroes on an adventure or humorous or brave or sometimes mischievous, through acts in which their real-life counterparts can’t achieve. These animals are given voices, facial expressions and personalities, perhaps for entertainment and appeal or perhaps for something a little more meaningful.
Burke, C & Copenhaver, J (2004 p.212) suggest…
“The intellectual and emotional distance that the animals’ role-playing allows children and their mentoring adults, grants space in which to become reflective and critical concerning life problems and life choices.”
Basically, it is put forward that anthropomorphism (animal characters as people) can add a degree of emotional distance for the reader, particularly when the story message is very powerful, personal, or painful (Burke & Copenhaver). The idea is that animal characters are placed in human shoes to play out our roles when exposed to issues in modern culture and basic principles. For example, morals and responsibilities are taught when the animals are shown to make mistakes and face consequences, resulting in a form of education for children and adults alike e.g. Finding Nemo = listen to your parents, just keep swimming, never give up etc.
So, we can argue that the use of human-like animals in stories helps to understand our own world, but it cannot be ignored that these human-like animals aren’t always portrayed realistically in stories, (a bear in the real world is quite terrifying and dangerous; a bear in fictitious stories is likely to be friendly, cuddly and willing to share its honey with you). This is a clear difference between anthropomorphism within fiction and reality and our reasoning is totally different too. In reality, it is not so easy to teach or train animals to act in human manners. It is very easy, however, to attribute human emotions to animals when we assume we know how they’re feeling.
- Elicited agent knowledge: the accessibility and applicability of anthropocentric knowledge. In the documentary, one of the scenes shows the capturing of Orca calves. This was done because humans had the power to do so and the whale’s were left helpless in this situation. John Crowe, one of the men who participated in capturing the whales expressed how it felt “just like kidnapping a little kid away from it’s mother.” Despite this, anthropocentrism justifies their capture of the whales for human ends (profit and entertainment).
- Effectance motivation: the motivation to explain and understand the behaviour of other agents. The actions of a mother whale were described as “screaming, screeching and crying” to help humans understand how she felt when her calf was taken away from her. Grief as a human emotion was applied to the mother.
- Sociality motivation: our desire for social contact – particularly evident when it comes to household pets. In the Blackfish documentary, the relationship between the trainers and whales is described as “a very personal relationship,” “a relationship like I’ve never had,” “just like training your dog.”
But what are the risks in anthropomorphism? In the following video, Jessi describes how it can interfere with communication and relationships with non-human animals.
Thus, it’s important to understand the behaviour of animals, rather than interpret their behaviour using human norms. Had aquatic parks fully understood the behaviours of Orca whales in the 90’s, perhaps they wouldn’t have captured the whales. The good news now is that SeaWorld have now stopped their breeding program so their current Orca whales will be the last in SeaWorld captivity.
I believe it is certainly human nature to anthropomorphise because it gives a voice to the seemingly voiceless. Ironically, anthropomorphism is used in literature to help understand our world, and anthropomorphism in the world can be used as a way to understand the animal. Either way, we must consider that animals are still animals and the key to listening is understanding.
Blackfish 2013, Documentary Film, CNN films, Netflix
Burke, C & Copenhaver, J 2004, ‘Animals as People in Children’s Literature’, Language arts, Vol. 81, No. 3, pp. 205 – 213 < https://secure.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Store/SampleFiles/Journals/la/LA0813Animals.pdf>
Epley, N, Waytz, A & Cacioppo, JT 2007, ‘On Seeing Human: a three-factor theory of anthropomorphism’, Psychol Rev Vol. 114, no. 4 < https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17907867>
Images: Google Images