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Anthropomorphism: the "A-Word"

By Graham Williamson, Wildlife Rehabilitation Assistant, Portland Audubon Wildlife Care Center

Anthropomorphizing is a common practice. We often talk about other animals, plants and non-living objects as if they have human attributes, personalities, emotions and motives. It is an old aspect of storytelling and as such has taught many of us basic and important cultural morals. So many of us grew up with stories like Goldilocks and The Three Bears, The Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf, and Red Riding Hood. Modern classics like The Wizard of Oz and many Disney stories continue to do this as well. As such, our tendency for anthropomorphism has been solidified and normalized throughout our lives. If you look online for discussions on anthropomorphism, you are likely to find opinions on both sides of the issue. How could something seemingly so harmless be problematic when it comes to conservation and wildlife rehabilitation? If it’s a bad practice, how do we unlearn something we are so strongly conditioned to do?

Perhaps part of the reason it is so prevalent is because there is an aspect of it that is an automatic psychological response for humans. In psychology, apophenia is the human tendency to see meaning or connections in unrelated events. “It would start raining as soon as I go outside (even though it’s been dry all day)!” In science, apophenia is considered a fallacy when interpreting data. We often have to run statistical tests; not just observe graphic data before we make claims from our findings. A common psychological form of apophenia is pareidolia; the phenomenon that causes people to see faces on the moon, saints on toast, or rabbits in cloud shapes. Loosely, pareidolia can be described as the projection of what we are familiar with onto what is unknown or unfamiliar. When you see a shape out of the corner of your eye that looks like a person, you turn your head and see it was a shrub, a shadow, or a fire hydrant. That initial projected image is pareidolia. Our brains naturally fill in gaps of our perception; it’s an autonomic response to perceive things we are familiar with when we are unsure what we are really seeing or hearing. As a result we have a natural tendency for anthropomorphism. If we want to connect with the natural world and better understand animal behavior, we must first understand our own tendencies and make critical observations that are not impacted by those tendencies.

Anthropomorphism almost always misinterprets animal behavior. Animal behavior is not something that is fully understood, but animals do not often share motivation or respond to situations the same way as people do. We are not so distinct from animals that there is no behavioral overlap; plenty of domestic pets and wild animals exhibit playfulness. It seems apparent animals can have fun just like we can. They feel hunger, and react accordingly just like we do. Healthy animals maintain a certain level of hygiene. Some species form communities or live in herds, hives or flocks. All of these observable behaviors are similar in ways to our own, and it is not anthropomorphism to call a behavior what it is. Birds maintain a level of hygiene because it is better for their health. Gazelle live in herds because it is safer from predators. These observations are not anthropomorphizing, but when we begin to ascribe human motives, we cross that line. It should be noted that even basic interpretations of behavior still require a level of knowledge about animal psychology and natural history. The internet is full of “cute animal” pictures and videos where the animal is exhibiting a fear response, is stressed, or even in shock. People make similar assumptions when they find injured wildlife and bring us swaddled raptors with their heads sticking out. Feeling securely wrapped and held may calm a human baby, but not a wild bird. Others talk to baby mammals and fledgelings in what they think is a soothing voice. All these animals see though is a vocalizing looming predator. And no: the animal does not “know you are trying to save it”. When we anthropomorphize animals, we are really telling ourselves what we want their behavior to mean, instead of interpreting the behavior for what it is.

Photo from Portland Fire and Rescue on January 25, 2022

Another reason anthropomorphism is a bad practice, especially with wildlife, is it can diminish those animals' natural worth. The world is made up of many diverse ecosystems. Amazing animals and plants, fungi and protists play varying roles in maintaining these incredible functioning systems. When we try to humanize wildlife, it begins to chip away in our own minds the position, value, and function these animals hold in our world. We begin to see everything as sort of human, but not really. Similar to us, but still beneath us. Subconsciously or not, we take away what makes them unique and replace it with what makes them like us. This view stems from deeper historical issues that assume humans as superior and above all other animals, rather than cohabiters of the same planet. We fail to see ourselves as one of the many members of an ecosystem because we have long since removed ourselves, and now we struggle to see the value in the different qualities other species have. Anthropomorphism is pretending they represent our own image. This aspect may not have as much application for wildlife rehabilitation, but it is crucial for conservation. We do not want to make these animals out to be like us, because a planet of only humans does not create the magnificent ecosystems we all benefit from. We also tend to put more emphasis on species that seem the most similar to people. Cute animals like pandas and penguins, or majestic animals like tigers and elephants receive more care and conservation effort than insects or fish. We see little of ourselves in a tidal rockfish, or a beetle. Subsequently the public cares little for them. Instead of seeing and appreciating their ecological importance, we base our interest off of perceived likeness. Understanding animal behavior and their natural roles can help us better appreciate the world around us and how critical it is to preserve it.

It has been claimed by some conservationists that anthropomorphism is a good tool for public engagement. People tend to care more if they see themselves reflected in an animal. The argument is that humanizing a species causes people to be more empathetic. Empathy is something we are very familiar with in wildlife rehabilitation. We depend on empathetic people who notice suffering animals and bring them in for treatment. We want to encourage this to continue because this is truly empathy; a person being able to recognize another animal’s pain without experiencing it themself. At the same time, we have to admit and address when false empathy is being exhibited. Anthropomorphizing, rather than seeking to understand an animal’s point of view, selfishly projects what we want to see of ourselves. For individuals rescuing an injured animal, empathy starts with recognizing the pain they must be experiencing. In a broader conservation sense, empathy occurs when we see the world through their eyes.

Understanding how we fragment habitat, build unnatural structures, and drive vehicles through their territories that are often fatal on impact. As a wildlife rehabilitator the point of this is not to say “look how terrible people are” but to highlight how drastically different these animals’ experiences are from our own. To point out how an exciting up-close encounter with an injured animal is something utterly horrifying for them. Empathizing with wildlife can be difficult because of how dissimilar they really are, but the experience is always worth it. Empathy does not end with “look how similar you are to me,” but with “I recognize what harm has been done, and I want to help”. It is integral to wildlife rehabilitation and conservation, and our work will always improve the more we all learn to practice it.

Anthropomorphism is not the worst thing we can do regarding animals and wildlife, however it does skew our perception and therefore influences our interaction with animals. It is important that we all try to respect and understand other living creatures, and realize when we humanize them in our own minds. It is something that is taught to us from a young age, and normalized throughout our lives so it is not something we can simply switch on or off. Through raising awareness and recognizing when we do it, we can unlearn what has been instilled in us and begin to appreciate wildlife behavior in a new, authentic light.

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