Anthropomorphism: Making Animals Human?

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.

Susanne Haywood

‘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.

Follow us on Twitter @TiggerHaywood or on Facebook: http://bit.ly/TiggerFB.

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43 thoughts on “Anthropomorphism: Making Animals Human?

  1. Thank you Susanne for such an interesting and we’ll worded post.
    I do believe animals have emotions. If we know our pets well, we can see what some of those emotions are.
    We currently have seven cats, all of whom have totally individual personalities, likes and dislikes.
    Last December we had to help one of our cats, Tika, make his journey across Rainbow Bridge. He was a lovely cat, and had even won over our grumpy old girl who became friends with him as well as our other cats. Our little tortie girl was his soul mate – they were a similar age and bonded almost immediately when Tika arrived in the house.
    After Tika passed, there was a sadness from the cats, and it did seem that they were mourning him too. This sadness varied in its degree in different cats, and the length of the sadness periods varied too. It was awful to see them so sad.

    1. Thank you for that insightful example of cat personalities and emotions! So glad we’re not the only ones who know how cats feel. R.I.P. Tika, and welcome on the other side of the rainbow bridge.

  2. What a nice post! We desperately need to bring the gap between the animal world and human world. I am reading the book written by Frans van love to der Waal ” are we smart enough to understand how smart animals are?” It’s an interesting read. I love to guess what animals think and am hoping that I’m getting better at it.

  3. Great post! It would be so much better for the kitties if we took the time to understand them. They teach us a lot, and we could learn from them, if we take the time to listen.

  4. i like your writing. i think because cat are exposed with our environment making them to adjust themselves to live just like us. and i cant wait to read the book also.

  5. When I was a teen, I read a book for a report about a boy who turned into a cat. Great story by Paul Gallico called ‘Jennie’. I love cat stories! ❤️💜💜💜❤️

  6. This is a very insightful piece.I, for one, do not believe animals have souls, and therefore will not be able to merge with God in heaven as our souls will. But the comfort and love our animals, especially cats and dogs, bring us in this lifetime here on earth is a precious, God-given thing. Just as we consider our animals part of the family, we must anthropomorphize them to some degree to do so. My Lena is my baby. I never had any human babies ,and in order to have human grandkids I’ve had to borrow those of former students and friends who are willing to “share” along the way. Now that Lena has passed the age of sixteen, she has outdistanced me in human years, but she will always be my baby until one of us dies. We have a former student who loves Lena as we do and would open his home to her if we should pass away.

  7. Interestingly, some are happy to attribute certain animals’ features to humans. For example, a typical stereotype is to compare autistic humans with cats and non-autistics with dogs. Some stretch the analogy even further and say that having autism is like being a cat in the world of dogs. Why is it considered to be wrong to anthropomorphise animals, but it seems to be OK to animalomorphise humans 🙂 ; in this case, to felinomorphise autistics and canoninomorphise non-autistics.

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