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.
Do Animals Have Personalities?
Besides anecdotal evidence, there is scientific research to support the idea that animals exhibit individual and consistent behavior across a variety of situations. Using game-theory models, researchers at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands have suggested that fish, bird, and mammal “personalities” may be linked to evolutionary survival and reproduction.
But is personality just about consistent behavior, or is it also about emotion? Scott Blais is the cofounder and director of operations at the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee. With over 2,700 acres, it is the largest natural-habitat refuge for endangered Asian and African elephants in the United States. A unique operation whose number one priority is the respect, health, and privacy of the animals, the Sanctuary centers on the basic assumption that every elephant has distinct needs and personalities.
When talking about “the girls,” as the caretakers at the Sanctuary (which hosts females primarily) call the elephants, Blais says, “Some have trust issues; some have more social needs; some just want you to stand close to them.” Ned, who passed away in May 2009, was a gentle soul. Shirley is the “grandmother” of the group. Billie, who had a reputation as “dangerous” in her circus days, is insecure but increasingly cooperative and dependent on her best friends, Frieda and Liz. She also loves back rubs. Tange is coming into her own after the passing of her longtime friend Zula; Blais describes this situation as similar to what a person might go through after a spouse dies.
While Blais believes it’s foolish for humans to assume animals don’t have the capacity for happiness and sadness, he draws his conclusions about the elephants’ personalities from watching their behavior. He may not always know what motivates their behavior, he says, but he’s confident they feel emotion and “they are as individual as people or dogs or cats.”
Can We Take It Too Far?
Anthropomorphizing animals goes both ways. If by bestowing human characteristics and motivations on animals, we can see them as responsible parties worthy of care and consideration, we can also see them as worthy of blame. When an orca at SeaWorld recently drowned a trainer, witnesses and bloggers were quick to paint the marine mammal, who had been involved in two previous human deaths, as a killer. The Humane Society and the marine park responded with statements reminding people that animals’ behavioral motivations are complex. Tilikum the whale was certainly not a twelve-thousand-pound serial killer.
Many zoos raise specific animals to celebrity status. It’s a way for visitors to connect on, quite literally, a personal level, and it’s a marketing gimmick. About twenty years ago, some U.S. zoos, including those in Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Miami, tried to move away from this humanizing trend by no longer publicly naming their animals. They hoped that would not just move attention away from particular animals and toward the species in general, but also remind visitors that these were not pets but wild (kind of) animals.
Scott Blais saw that trend in a slightly different light: visitors becoming too sympathetic to zoo animals might start to take issue with the concept of zoos in general. “If [animals] have personalities,” Blais says, “how can you justify keeping them in that level of confinement?”
There’s a fine line between seeking to understand animals by conceiving their behavior as cohesive personalities with psychological or emotional motivations, and treating them like people. To respect any creature is to appreciate it for what it is. At the Elephant Sanctuary, an elephant—timid or brave, playful or reclusive—is still, first and foremost, an elephant.