By Kathryn Williams, DivineCaroline
“Cows are people too, you know,” reads Stonyfield Farm’s yogurt lid. The advertising line works not just for the absurdity of the statement, but because we recognize something of ourselves in it. My sister’s friend calls her cat “The Dude” for his laid-back, Jeff Lebowski–like demeanor. Another friend is convinced her dog gets embarrassed when he’s forced to poop in front of her. My stepmother treats her horse like a son. How else could you explain the $40 billion business of pet care in the U.S.? You see, Fifi is very particular about the labels she wears.
Why Do We Humanize Animals?
Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human motivations, characteristics, and behaviors to nonhuman entities. The word originated in ancient Greece, from the Greek words for “man” and “form,” to describe the characterization of pagan gods (and eventually the Judeo-Christian God) in human terms. When humans do not have cognitive access to something, or the ability to experience, understand, or communicate with it, we often try to make sense of it by viewing it as an extension of ourselves. We assume its thought processes and motivations are similar to ours. We identify.
People are more likely to anthropomorphize things or beings that look and act like us: animals that have faces, for example, or that walk. We’re more likely to personify a dog than a tree, or a bear than a snake. By imbuing animals with human characteristics and thought patterns, we shorten the distance between us. We start to see their behavior as either positive or negative, and we become sympathetic or, stronger still, empathetic. This feeling of a “personal” relationship can benefit humans as much as it does the animals that rely on us for food and shelter. One recent Japanese study found that a dog’s gaze can increase the owner’s level of oxytocin, the feel-good hormone instrumental in social bonding.