"Being anthropomorphic is a linguistic tool to make the thoughts and feelings of other animals accessible to humans," according to cognitive ethologist (animal behaviorist) Marc Bekoff. We talk about how animals feel and what they must be thinking in order to connect with them. Anthropomorphization is a big, complex word that the dictionary defines as "the attribution of human characteristics or behavior to a god, animal or object." We can find examples of this in most Disney films (think Bambi, the Fox and the Hound, Finding Nemo). The animals in these stories think like people, talk like people and even move like people.
We all find ourselves doing this in real life, too. Humans are social creatures who crave connection. The best example is how we treat our pets.
When my dog walks face-first into a door, how mundane it would be to simply say, "Huh. My dog walked face-first into a door." Instead I say, "Look! He's so embarrassed! He's just looking at me like, 'You didn't see anything ... I didn't do that.'" I assign 'embarrassment' to what he must be feeling because I've experienced it (admit it, we have ALL face-planted into a door before) and if my dog and I have experienced the same thing in the same way, there is a connection.
When we feel connected with someone or something, we are more likely to care for it. Take this photo of a grebe, for example. He kind of has a silly grin on his face, right? Even though that is just how his beak is shaped and there's no way he could change it if he wanted to, it makes us feel at ease, unlocks compassion and makes it easier to step in and help it when it's hurt. In this way we as wildlife rehabilitators rely on anthropomorphism to be a catalyst for public action.
Sometimes, though, people can take it too far and end up causing an animal more harm than good. Every spring we get hundreds of calls from people who are worried about a baby animal they have found all alone. Since we would never put our own babies in the woods and walk away for hours on end, obviously a mother deer would also never do that, so something must have gone wrong.
Even after we explain that this is completely normal behavior for a mother doe and that the fawn is safe, people still have a hard time accepting it. Some have even taken the fawn against our advice because they couldn't bear the thought of a baby being alone.
Anthropomorphization can also become tragic when we begin assigning emotional intent to an animal's behavior. Crows and ravens are often described as "mean" because they will attack other animals. This is just part of life in the wild; the birds aren't being bullies when they go after a pigeon or a squirrel. They are trying to get dinner.
It's not personal, it's just how it is. The same goes for a flock of starlings making noise in the trees right outside our bedroom window. They're not being annoying on purpose. They're not saying, "Ha! Now we'll really drive them crazy!" That behavior is just part of how they evolved and how they survive.
As with anything in life, balance is key. Anthropomorphism takes the wild out of wildlife. It can be a slippery slope on both sides. Inserting too much of our own thoughts and feelings into the explanation of wildlife can lead us to do dangerous things both for us and the animals. However, we must not remove so much of ourselves from our vision of our wild neighbors that we lose our capacity for kindness and compassion toward them.
Wildwoods is a 501(c)(3) wildlife rehabilitation organization in Duluth. For information on how you can help wildlife, including volunteer opportunities, visit wildwoodsrehab.org, call (218) 491-3604 or write to P.O. Box 3161, Duluth, MN 55803.
Megan Stanton is a staff member at Wildwoods and has called Duluth home since 2009. She lives in Central Hillside with her husband, dog and two cats.