One day, late last year I noticed a small withered bird that would meander and nest upon our front lawn. The Common Myna (Acridotheres tristis) is brown with a black head. It has a yellow bill, legs and bare eye skin. In flight it shows large white wing patches. It is found along the east and south-east coasts of Australia.
He/She had one leg, and was easily differentiated by the distinct hobble as it scavenged and explored the front of our property. Its regular appearance earned it the name ‘Bert‘. We saw him as our house mascot as he was the last thing we saw when leaving home and the first thing as we arrived. Due to his/her condition we knew that survival would be hard with such an injury, but all the while he always seemed buoyant. 4 months later with daily interaction, I was left saddened as he was never seen again. This personal experience is a perfect example of ‘anthropomorphism‘, which describes the tendency to imbue the real or imagined behavior of nonhuman agents with humanlike characteristics, motivations, intentions, or emotions.
“a byproduct of the ability to draw upon one’s own beliefs, feelings, intentions, and emotions, and apply the knowledge of these experiences to the understanding of the mental states of other species” (Gallup, 1985)
[ The Common Myna; Acridotheres tristis ]
There can be and have been instances where some are dismissed as being anthropomorphic when claiming that animals feel emotions much like humans do. It’s an easy way for people who want to profit off the suffering of animals to dismiss actions of a more commercialised and insidious intent. It’s sufficient to state the animal’s obvious and physical characteristics, for example no one will charge one with anthropomorphism because no one doubts that animals breathe. But if one were to stress an animal is happy, sad, depressed, grieving, in mourning or afraid, they may be dismissed as being anthropomorphic. In dismissing claims that animals emote, those who want to exploit them rationalize their actions.
Notions like this have recently been prevalent in media and society where animals have been depicted to have the same/extremely similar internal characteristics as humans. These tendency can be seen as a source of error. Anthropomorphism carries many important implications. As this idea reads and interprets nonhuman organisms in human ways, this then redevelops and conveys a new degree of worth, virtue and treatment towards the subject. ‘Anthropomorphized entities become responsible for their own actions — that is, they become deserving of punishment and reward.’ (Nauert, 2017).
This is expressed and evident in the event which transpired around Harambe, a male gorilla from Cincinnati Zoo whereby a young boy fell into his enclosure. This outraged many as the gorilla was shot dead by authorities during the incident.
Harambe’s reaction as nonhuman entity was read as that of a natural one triggered by his primal instincts. Certain genes that were analyzed differ by only 1.2% between humans and chimpanzees, by 1.6% between humans and gorillas and by 1.8% between gorillas and chimpanzees (Bergorilla.org, 2017). I believe this animal was innocently put down because of sheer anthropomorphism of the species, and the way they are conveyed to audiences around the world. They are not only depicted as human-like in the media but also through fiction representations (Planet of the Apes franchise).
The misrepresentation of species and their connection to the human race have had great implications on their reception and credibility worldwide. As the notion of ‘personification’ is considered a valuable literary device, with positive connotations. Anthropomorphism has negative connotations and is usually used to describe an inaccurate view of the world, regarding non-humans. It is important to lessen our expectations of animals due to the differentiating hormones that run through our bodies and through those who are not human.
Berggorilla.org. (2017). How closely are gorillas related to us? – Berggorilla & Regenwald Direkthilfe e.V, viewed 22 March 2017, < http://www.berggorilla.org/en/gorillas/general/facts/how-closely-are-gorillas-related-to-us/ >
Nauert, D 2015, Why Do We Anthropomorphise?, Psych Central, weblog post, viewed 22 March 2017, <https://psychcentral.com/news/2010/03/01/why-do-we-anthropomorphize/11766.html>