Full disclosure: I am breaking my no-more-blog-posts-until-I-finish-writing-my-books-and-move-out-west rule. Again. But it’s so hard not to share things with you all, especially when I am passionate about something!
The topic on the table is something that every single person on this planet has done at least once in their life. For many, it’s something we all do almost every day. We anthropomorphize.
What is Aɴᴛʜʀᴏᴘᴏᴍᴏʀᴘʜɪsᴍ?
The big “A” word is the attribution of human traits, emotions, motivations, and intentions to non-human entities (objects, animals, natural phenomena). Anthropomorphism is derived from its verb anthropomorphize, which is derived from the Greek word ánthrōpos, meaning “human”, and morphē , meaning “form”. It was first attested in 1753, originally in reference to the heresy of applying a human form to the Christian God.
The practice of anthropomorphism is an innate tendency of human psychology. We all do it. We see it everywhere: The Easter Bunny is an anthropomorphized rabbit. Shel Silverstein’s book The Giving Tree anthropomorphizes the tree. I named my first car.
It’s natural for us to want to relate to an animal, a plant, the weather, an object, the gods, goddesses, deities, angels, God, and anything else that seems to be outside of us. We want to connect! We want to create a connection that helps us to feel good. We need connections that help us to feel safe and supported. These connections can be powerful. They can heal. They help. They can foster loving connections.
But this natural tendency can also be very unhelpful and sometimes detrimental.
Eye of the Beholder
Let’s set the plants, weather, and goddesses aside for now. I am going to address our human view of animals’ behavior today. How we perceive behavior is key. When we don’t know how or why an animal is doing something, we tend to make it about us; we personalize it. We place the meaning that a behavior has for us, onto the animal. We anthropomorphize.
Let’s use two common examples of cat and dog behavior.
When we see a cat languidly rolling around on the floor, stretching and yawning in front of a child, or in front of another cat or dog, we see this behavior and think, “Awe, he’s so relaxed! He wants someone to love him!” But what could actually be happening with that behavior is very clear in cat language: Calm Down, Dude. It’s all good. I am not a threat. Be Cool. Chillax man. The cat is most likely offering a displacement behavior. But from our human perspective, we see sleepiness and invitation.
When a dog interrupts play to sniff his or her uro-genital body parts, we most likely will be embarrassed or grossed out, then label the dog as “nasty”. But the dog is far from nasty. The dog is offering a behavior that helps him/her to feel safe, or to feel better in that moment. What is most likely happening is the dog is performing a displacement behavior that occurs in stressful situations. But from our human perspective we have labeled the behavior and interpreted it much differently from the dog’s reality.
An animal’s particular behavior may seem to be “adorable”, “annoying”, “affectionate”, “rude”, “playful”, “disgusting”, “excited”, “happy”, “bored”, “mean”, “loving”, or “spiteful”, but there may be more than meets our human eye. Behaviors have functions. They are not always what we perceive them to be. The behavior that we have chosen to label as “excited” may actually be stress arousal. The behavior that we labeled “affectionate” may be used as a distance increasing behavior, or even scent marking for security. Fearful, unsure, overwhelmed, and incapable could be easily labeled as “stubborn”. What we perceive from our humanistic viewpoint is often way off the mark of what the animal is experiencing.
Pitfalls of the Big “A” Word
Misreading those two examples of behavior are not harmful in and of themselves. But some of the ways we misread, mislabel, and anthropomorphize animal behavior is harmful. And sometimes it’s dangerous.
One pitfall of anthropomorphizing animal behavior can be harmful and unfair to our pets. When we perceive our pet’s behavior from our human perspective (beliefs, intentions, and motivations), we miss the mark. We are unable to see what’s really happening with the animal. We see a behavior, assume it’s happening for one reason, then we get frustrated or upset with the animal. All too often the result from these kinds of misunderstandings and misperceptions is detrimental to the animals: They are the ones who are punished. All because of the belief, projection, or label that the person has placed upon them.
But in the animal’s reality – from the animal’s perspective- the behavior was performed for an entirely different reason or need. It was necessary.
Perception is consistent. What you see reflects your thinking.
And your thinking but reflects your choice of what you want to see. -ACIM
Many pet owners truly believe that animal companion is behaving out of spite or malice. This is not true. Animals do what works for them. All behavior serves a purpose. And that purpose is not to piss us off. Period.
Pet owners are simply unaware that the stool they found on their antique rug was from a very painfully constipated cat who needs medical attention. The dog who chewed their favorite shoes is suffering from anxiety. The cat who howls all night is suffering from a variety of aging ailments. The dog who barks at strangers is suffering from deep-rooted fear issues.
But what does the human see? A mess. Embarrassing behavior. Disruptive behavior. We miss the reality of what’s behind each of those behaviors: A call for help.
We are the ones who can respond to their calls for assistance.
When we don’t know how or why an animal behavior problem exists, we tend to make it about us; we personalize it. We make it into something that we can relate to. We label the animal. In the animal behavior world, this Anthropomorphism at its worst.
Hidden in the complex world of behavior science is a simple, often underutilized, fact that there is never just behavior. Behavior never occurs in a vacuum or sprays out of an animal haphazardly like water from a leaky showerhead, independent of conditions. Behavior always depends on the environment in some way. – Susan Friedman. Ph.D.
Another pitfall of anthropomorphism is a lack of safety. Take for instance the dog and baby or toddler who are “the best of friends” in the parent’s eyes. But dog and baby are not the best of friends. Dog is tolerating, and baby is on the borderline of dog’s boundary. The parents want to create a connection between dog and baby that helps them to feel good, and maybe even to feel safe. But the parents are unaware of the danger because they want so badly to connect. They want their dog and baby to be best friends, so that is what they see. But that is not the reality.
One example of this is “The Kiss To Dismiss.” A parent might assume her dog loves her baby because the dog is often licking the child’s face. But this is often not so. The behavior of face licking appears to be stemming from affection, but it certain circumstances, this behavior is intended to increase the distance between the licker and the lickee. This is a very effective way for a dog to get someone who is pestering, threatening, or annoying them them to go away. In dangerous situations like this, the unaware parents have placed their human attributes, human traits, emotions, motivations, and intentions onto the dog. Anthropomorphism is at work here.
The Desire to Create a Connection
Do you see a theme here? People want to connect with their pets. They want their kids and other people to connect with their pets. This makes people feel good. People ultimately want to feel safe ans secure. But when their pet’s behavior becomes unacceptable, or is labeled as something familiar and relate-able to the person (ex. spiteful, vengeful, malicious, rude, annoying, or aggressive) they lose trust in the animal and they don’t feel connected anymore. This loss of connection only widens the gap of communication and understanding.
When it comes to people, pets, and wild animals, anthropomorphism is usually at the root of many misperceptions and many mishaps. People not only want to connect with their pets, but they also want to connect with animals in nature. Part of the fun of indulging in a bit of anthropomorphizing of animals allows people to feel that animals are “just like us!” Of course we want to connect to animals. Connecting makes us feel good. But our lack of awareness, combined with our desire to connect with species who should remain wild can cloud our judgement.
The video that went viral of the kids petting the Lemur is one example. At first glance it looks adorable. And the children even appear to be practicing the “Pause Pet Respect” Rule, which is pretty cool! But, just like almost every animal video that goes viral, there is more going on than meets the eye.
Having worked with nonhuman primates in captivity, I have seen all too many of them who are abandoned and discarded as a result of the all too common must-have-it pet trade. The desire to own an exotic animal, or even wanting to interact and connect with it can be a very slippery slope. Unfortunately and all too often, lemurs like Sefo, and other exotic animals are taken from their natural habitat, sold or orphaned, and in return have poor quality lives; they are left alone in the unfamiliar and foreign human world, no longer able to survive in the lemur world.
What we are seeing in that “adorable” video is only a fraction of what’s the truth; Sefo was taken from his family and abandoned. The ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta) live in large family groups. These groups preen (groom) each other all day. If Sefo was with his natural born family he would never consider letting a human approach him.
Everyone anthropomorphized what we saw in that video. It’s a natural response for anyone, if we don’t know about healthy and normal primate behavior. But that’s the point. When we lack knowledge of an individual animal’s needs, when we don’t know the natural biology and behavior of an animal, the only perspective we have is from our limited human point of view.
And Then Came “Anthropodenial”…
So by now you are probably realizing that how you view your pets, wild animals, and even the weather is largely based around anthropomorphizing. Attributing human characteristics to the weather and animals does create great material for humorous cartoons, but it’s not helpful if we want to understand why things happen they way they do, and why an animal behaves a certain way.
Placing human-like intentions on animals is often thought of as unscientific. But there are some who argue that anthropomorphizing’s opposing position, “anthropodenial” — an unwillingness to recognize the human-like traits of animals — is too prevalent in our attitudes toward other species.
I have to ask: Could the absence of anthropomorphism be just as harmful?
Through decades of analyzing animal-cognition research, animals have exhibited many of key behaviors that were once thought to distinguish humans from animals. Some of these abilities and behaviors include the ability to consider the past and the future, the ability to demonstrate empathy and self-awareness, and the awareness and ability to anticipate the motives of others. Certain skills are considered key signs of higher mental abilities. These skills and abilities were once reserved for the human species, but now the animal kingdom shares many of these abilities!
These include, but are not limited to:
– a good memory
– ability to recall a specific past event
– a grasp of grammar and symbols
– understanding others’ motives
– imitating others
– being creative
Animal cognition research humbles us. We are not alone in our ability to invent or plan or to contemplate ourselves—or even to plot and lie. -“Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?,” the Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal
Over the years and through ingenious experiments, researchers have documented these skills in other non-human species, gradually eroding the deep-seeded belief that human beings are the superior species. But there is research to show us otherwise. Animals can be incredibly complex cognitive creatures. Animals’ abilities can and do rival ours.
Darwin even suggested that earthworms are cognitive beings! Based on his close observations, earthworms have to make judgments about the kinds of leafy material they use to block their tunnels. Darwin did not expect to discover thinking invertebrates. He shared that even a hint of earthworm intelligence “has surprised me more than anything else.”
I have found myself thinking similar surprising thoughts with the species I have worked and lived with over the years. What I have learned from them has revolutionized the way I perceive animals and their behavior. I may not understand the motivation behind an animal’s particular behavior, but I do understand and I do recognize and respect that every behavior serves a purpose for each animal. Whether this behavior is a choice, a preference, or it serves a vital outcome, it must be respected. Even if I am unable to perceive it at the time.
There is indeed, more happening “behind the scenes” in an animal’s world than we are aware.
If an octopus were to measure human intelligence, it might test us on the number of color patterns we can produce on the skin of our (pathetically few) appendages. Seeing us flunk the test, it might conclude that we are pretty stupid. -The Soul of an Octopus” by naturalist Sy Montgomery
We now know that animals do have abilities and skills that rival ours:
– Scrub jays are aware that other jays are thieves and that their stashed food can spoil
– Sheep can recognize faces
– Capuchin monkeys can experience envy
– Chimpanzees use a variety of tools to probe termite mounds and even use weapons to hunt small mammals
– Crows can hold grudges against the biologists who capture and tag them
– Orcas use highly coordinated synchronized swimming to push seals off ice floes and into the water
– Sea lions can associate symbols (if A goes with B, and B goes with C, then A and C belong together as well)
– Dolphins can imitate human postures
– The archerfish, which stuns insects with a sudden blast of water, can learn how to aim its squirt simply by watching an experienced fish perform the task
– Chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas have been taught to use sign language and symbols
– Alex the parrot turned out to be a surprisingly amazing speaker
– Betsy the Bodercollie has a vocabulary of more than 300 words.
– Octopi can be shy, playful, cantankerous, or sneaky. They crave attention and play with toys.
Squirrels may fail at memory tasks that are important to humans, but, whereas we need apps to help us find our misplaced cell phones, they can remember where they’ve hidden tiny caches of nuts.-de Waal
Awareness, Knowledge, and Intelligence Coexisting
So, let’s say for a moment that some species of animals are capable of the full spectrum of intelligence and awareness of we humans. Does that mean that our pets ARE doing things out of spite and malice? Does this mean that our pets “should know better?” Does this mean that we shouldn’t use anthropomorphism? Does this mean that all conscious beings are fully armed knowledge of absolutely everything in the universe?
My short answer to all of those questions is NO.
History has shown us that extreme anthropomorphizing of animals can lead to blaming animals for crimes and it can end terribly for the animal. For example, in medieval and early modern Europe the animal’s mind was considered sophisticated enough that domesticated animals such as dogs and pigs could be put on trial for crimes. Seriously, this happened.
As crazy as that case was, similar situations still happen today. Pet owners tell me (all too often) why they blame their pet for “deliberately” behaving in ways that are “clearly meant to piss them off”. They claim the animal “knows what she’s doing!” They are convinced that he is “doing it on purpose!”
Then they punish the animal. Or they toss their family pet out like the trash.
Of course animals are behaving in ways that serve their needs. They are not mindless creatures. They are sentient beings who are trying to live in our human world the best way they know how. But the animals with whom we share a home are not doing things for the reasons that we humans might be doing them.
Our pets are not being spiteful, vengeful, or malicious. They are behaving in ways that help them to coexist in our human world. They are behaving in ways that help them to feel better. They are behaving in ways that help them to feel safe. They are behaving in response to their internal and external environment! Their behavior always serves a purpose. That purpose is not to upset you. I promise you this.
Your job as their guardian is to discover what they are trying to communicate. Your duty is to learn why their behavior is happening. Your job as their guardian is to learn their language. It’s not enough to love, shelter, and feed them. We have to learn to communicate clearly. We must set aside our human perceptions and limited beliefs. And we must learn as much as we can.
Our duty as an animal guardian is to become fluent in their needs, their biology, their health, history, and their species-specific language. We need to know about each species’ natural behaviors! And if you don’t know them, learn them. Read about dog or cat behavior. Read up on the particular species of lizard or parrot that you have. Read about the requirements of rats. Know what your kid’s guinea pig needs. Read about the red flags to be aware of in cat behavior and health. Know what your cat needs to thrive! Learn what dogs need to feel safe and secure in our human world. Know what your dog needs to feel safe and connected.
Our animal companions want to connect with us, but it may not be in the way that we know how to, or how we prefer to connect. Each animal is an individual. And each species has their unique needs. Our pets want to feel safe. They need to be supported in their environment. They want to thrive. They are no different from us when it comes to wanting their individual needs to be met. And they will do what they can to ensure all of this. This theme is one that connects us all. Animals know what they need. They feel. They respond to their world. They behave in ways that work for them.
The question is I feel we need to ask ourselves is: How am I viewing all of this from my human perspective?
“It’s easy to project our own feelings onto animals—and that’s a mistake, but it’s a worse mistake to think that we are up on some kind of pedestal and that animals can’t also think, feel, and know.” – naturalist, Sy Montgomery