Anthropomorphism. Is it really all that bad?

Anthropomorphism (n): Ascribing human characteristics ( e.g. emotions) to inanimate objects or non human animals.

I often hear people apologizing for anthropomorphizing their pets.  The apology is often accompanied by a statement recognizing that you can not assume an animal has emotions as people do.

First, make no mistake about it, animals have emotions!  If they didn’t, I could not do my job! Pets have all of the neurological equipment needed to have emotions. The tricky part of discussing animals and emotions is making assumptions about their behaviors and what they must be feeling.  What do I mean by this?  Well, let’s take the following example:

You are taking a nice leisurely stroll in the woods and as you are walking you hear birds singing in the trees. You think to yourself  “….  how nice it is that the birds are so happy that they are singing in joy”        Right? …..

Wrong!   Birds can certainly have emotions but birds typically use song as a way of defending their territories or warding off intruders. So not only are they not happy just because they are singing,  but they are feeling threatened or getting ready for a fight. So as you can see, we can not assume a certain behavior ( singing) is exactly the same as it would be in people.  That being said, no one is saying a bird can not be happy but rather an understanding of the natural behavior of the bird is needed to understand what behaviors indicate happiness, aggression, etc….

The correct term for this is called critical anthropomorphism.

When trying to tease apart why a dog, cat, parrot, rabbit etc… is engaging in a behavior, an understanding of their sociobiology is very important so you do not misinterpret why an animal is doing a certain behavior.

In my practice, some of the common pet behavior problems where people assume their pet is engaging in a behavior for the WRONG emotional reason are as follows: urinating and defecating around the house, biting people, dogs biting other dogs who live in the same household, and parrots biting their owners.

I wish everyone a wonderful New Year and hope everyone commits to doing what they can to minimize animal suffering.

Published in: on January 3, 2011 at 11:16 am  Leave a Comment  

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