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.