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My Thoughts on Anthropomorphism

Author: Andrea Obey | Date: June 11, 2012

As a science geek, I’ve learned over the years to never anthropomorphize with animals. That’s when you attribute human characteristics to other animals.

One of my first experiences of I guess “failing” with this came when I was a zookeeper caring for reindeer.  I told my supervisors that one of the reindeer, an older female, was “depressed” and “very stressed”.  I also documented that she was exhibiting OCD behaviors, isolation, not eating, had some superficial wounds and was non-responsive to stimuli that would normally excite her, such as a loaf of bread.  But, my director made fun of my assessment that she was “depressed”. “What are we going to do, put her on Prozac?  HAHAHA!” (Little did he know that many pets were on Prozac.) Thankfully, my senior keeper backed me up and said that “depressed” was becoming a more accepted term in animal care.  “Lethargic” didn’t properly describe her, which is a more accepted term in some cases, because she was also slightly agitated.  She was, indeed, depressed.  Of course that wasn’t the only thing wrong with her. She was having some physical issues such as walking in large circles in her enclosure, not acknowledging me, not interacting with anyone and various other oddities.  After a few days of pushing this, it was discovered that the younger female reindeer was becoming more aggressive toward the older female and fighting her for food and other resources.  We also found out later that she was having seizures.  This whole incident really got me thinking about the subject.

Anthropomorphism is a slippery slope.

We know that our dogs don’t “get even” with us by chewing our favorite shoes for yelling at them the day before. They do it because they are bored out of their minds and the shoes were there!  They don’t know that they should not have gotten into the garbage when we come home hours later to discover a mess and in our darkest voice say, “what did you do?!”  But I will say that I think a bit of anthropomorphism can work to our (and our animals) advantage.  It gives us empathy.

Without empathy, what would we have?  This is how humans relate to things whether it is right or wrong.  When we see rows after rows of dogs in cages in a puppy mill, or a cat wide-eyed, hiding and terrified because it was dumped somewhere out of the comfort of a home, we feel empathy.  In the case of our reindeer, had I not used that term and pushed for her to be watched more closely, we never would have discovered she was being bullied and that she was having seizures.

I am not advocating we all start putting more emphasis on this because years of science would take three steps back.  I get pretty frustrated when I see overly anthropomorphic posts about animals.  But I am saying that I think we sometimes dismiss, scorn and judge when some people do relate to animals by applying human attributes.  It is the way we relate and empathize and it’s nearly impossible for humans to, well, not be human.  When we have balance between science-based facts and empathy in our relationships with all animals, we are embracing ideas from many perspectives and not dismissing one or the other or focusing solely on one or the other.  Just some food (preferably from the tempting garbage or a loaf of bread) for thought.


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