The Collins Dictionary of Sociology defines anthropomorphism as ‘the attribution of human form or characteristics to natural phenomena, animals, deities, spirits, etc.’. In the past, such attributions were perfectly normal practice. Literature such as the Greek Myths or the Grimms Brothers’ Fairy Tales – all originally part of folklore, not meant for children – provide ample proof.
Nowadays, however, anthropomorphism has become a controversial topic, with a value judgement attached: people either embrace or reject the idea of the presence of a spirit world, the direct influence of a god or gods in human lives, or the belief that animals have human characteristics such as emotions, rational thought, a language or personalities of their own.
My own experience bears this out. A little while ago, I published a book: ‘Tigger: Memoirs of a Cosmopolitan Cat’, which told the story of our ginger tom’s eventful life with us, his human family, on three continents. It is written from the cat’s point of view, and readers’ reactions to it revealed just such a divide. There were those who accepted Tigger’s musings readily and as a matter of course, related them to their own cats and happily prowled along in his wake. And there were others, who felt that my approach was decidedly odd, that animals were animals, a totally different species from us and not to be interpreted by human standards.
Does the first group of readers love animals more than the second? Or are they relics of bygone days, of a more primitive world view which they should have outgrown in the civilised world of the 21st century?
The key to an answer may lie in the reason why we are tempted to humanise our pets in the first place. Essentially, I think, we do it because it makes them more comprehensible to us. Let’s face it, as a species we are not very imaginative where alternative ways of communicating, thinking and acting are concerned. We are even having trouble accepting otherness amongst our fellow humans. By making animals more like us, we bring them closer to our human world and strengthen the bond between us.
I am not talking about the aberrations of the Victorian age here – the museums filled with stuffed kittens dressed in period costume, sitting around tables set for afternoon tea, or even about Beatrix Potter dressing Peter Rabbit in a little blue jacket. These were early attempts at creating animals in our own image; things have moved on. I am talking about letting animals be animals, accepting that they operate on a level different, though in no way inferior to us – a level that meets their needs and corresponds to their make-up. But recognizing nevertheless that their body language is a perfectly good mode of communication, on a par with our mouth-centric one, and accepting that happiness, sadness, fear or anger can be expressed in ways other than laughter or tears, and that animals do have those sentiments. They do feel pain and disappointment, joy and relief. Nobody who lives with an animal can doubt it. It is also evident that their personalities are not the same. Some are confident, others fearful; some are smart, even canny, others slower, or scatter-brained; some like cuddles, others remain aloof. We observe them and learn from their reactions what they like and dislike; what makes them tick; who they are.
If we then go one step further and connect our animals’ natural behaviour with human behaviours we easily recognize, that is not necessarily a bad thing. It is an attempt at translating between species, much as we translate between human languages. A good translator does not translate word by word; rather he or she conveys concepts in a way that the other culture will intuitively understand. Every human language contains words that don’t exist in any other language, because they are embedded in that nation’s cultural heritage, one might call it their collective subconscious. Conveying those words is the hardest of all, and sometimes almost impossible if we don’t share enough of the experiences of the other culture. Yet we try, in an attempt to understand on a level that is familiar to us, to grasp how their lives and minds operate, and when we do it is an enriching experience which dismantles prejudice and fear of otherness. Translating between humans and animals is no different, and by the way it works both ways: our pets try to translate us, too, and are finding it just as hard.
So, critics and doubters, don’t be too hard on those of us who try to bridge the gap between species in a way that helps others understand. One of my readers who didn’t like cats at all before discovering Tigger’s story now has four cats of her own and loves them to bits. Apparently, she really ‘gets’ them now, and they brighten up her life. My attempts at translation obviously worked in her case, and I shall continue to weave those fragile threads between humans and animals, because ultimately this kind of anthropomorphism benefits animal welfare, both at home and in the wild. It is harder to be thoughtless, domineering or cruel towards someone of whose feelings you are aware. I am hopeful that anthropomorphism will lead our species to the eventual realization that animals are sentient beings not so different from us, who should be treated with the same respect we grant our fellow humans.
‘Tigger: Memoirs of a Cosmopolitan Cat’ is a novel written by Susanne Haywood. It is available through all good bookshops as a paperback and online as an e-book at http://bit.ly/AmazonCatUK or http://bit.ly/AmazonCat.
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