How The Hen House Turns: Anthropomorphism Or Not?

Former Los Alamos Resident
There’s a very fine line to be drawn between anthropomorphizing animals and discovering who they really are.
I’ve been delighted by animal stories all my life—like Lassie Come Home, even Charlotte’s Web. I also have been fascinated by anecdotal tales of dolphins rescuing drowning humans and dogs saving lives with their acute sense of smell.
Lately, these past 15 or 20 years, I have been relieved to read that ethologists, students of animal behavior, now recognize and are studying animals’ checkered experiences of emotion and self-awareness. The words consciousness and feeling and thought have been applied to our furry and feathered friends with careful analysis to back up their use.
I said “relieved” because, for a long time, academic animal studies forbade any consideration or description of behavior or emotion that resembled that of human beings. It was called engaging in anthropomorphism—like attributing all spiders with the wisdom of Charlotte. It was so feared by academia that many astute observations were ignored because they were anecdotal, hence not reliably informative.
Frans DeWaal opened the door to our growing awareness of animal sentience with his chimp studies. Early this century, John W. Pilley has given us a thorough accounting of his training experiments with the Border collie Chaser, who learned to identify more than a thousand named toys, simple noun generalizations, and subject-to- object commands.
Recently, I came across an article on geese in the Smithsonian Magazine, December 2006. “Living With Geese” by Paul Theroux, in which he attacks the “avian misconceptions” and “anthropomorphism” of animal stories and the movie “March of the Penguins,” calling it a “travesty of science.” I can’t agree with such a strong statement, but I would agree that the movie exaggerated the emotional angst and cold stress of the penguins. Nature provides for those to survive.
I also agree with Theroux that “anthropomorphism produce[s] a deficiency of observation” and we can easily assign “human personalities to animals” when we cherish them. We have also tended to demonize some animals in literature– those that appear ugly or dangerous to us.
As he suggests, we need to recognize that most animals have evolved a necessary expertise in their “…daily quest for food” and in raising their young.
However, as a raiser of geese, author Theroux falls into the same anthropomorphic trap. He says that E. B. white goes too far by calling his geese “cheerful” or “malicious,” or “grief-stricken.” However, when he discusses his geese, he uses words like “joyous,” “patient,” “possessive,” even “precocious.” Perhaps, like E. B. White, we do see our beloved animals as “extensions” of ourselves. Isn’t that quite reasonable? We do share the experience of life with other animals. We even share many DNA codes.
Perhaps we have been too long in recognizing how much we share. Aren’t elephants grieving—when they stay with a dying and dead infant or revisit and stand quietly beside a relatives’ bones? We know a dog is sad when his tail droops low. The books I have read recently on training horses suggest that they have personality traits similar to some of ours.
I can’t agree with Theroux that ducks are “passive and unsociable.” (Are these anthropomorphic descriptions?) My duck Ms. Campbell was clearly upset when one chick died, upset enough to flutter and quack loudly at me– a most unusual behavior– when I let her and the surviving chick out of the nest one morning. She also made herself quite clear most mornings when she came close, voiced a quiet “quack quack” in my face, then walked to where I had left the trowel and eagerly snatched the worms I unearthed.
The question remains: How much experience, how many feelings, what kind of thinking do we humans really share with animal life? Where do we draw the line on anthropomorphism? Stay tuned. There are also some wonderful books about octopuses, recently published.
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