Thursday, 23 August 2012


“Those who wish to pet and baby wild animals love them. But those who respect their natures and wish to let them live normal lives, love them more.” - Edwin Way Teale

Anthropomorphism is an attribution of human characteristics (or characteristics assumed to belong only to humans) to other animals, non-living things, phenomena, material states, objects or abstract concepts, such as organisations, governments, spirits or deities. The term was coined in the mid 1700s. Examples include animals and plants and forces of nature such as winds, rain or the sun depicted as creatures with human motivations, and/or the abilities to reason and converse. The term derives from the combination of the Greek ἄνθρωπος (ánthrōpos), “human” and μορφή (morphē), “shape” or “form”.
This device is often used in literature (for example, Aesop’s fables are full of examples of anthropomorphism) or in art (for example, Britain is anthropomorphosed as the warrior Britannia, a helmeted woman with shield and trident). As humans we tend to regard ourselves (perhaps hubristically…) as the peak of creation and the most evolved of life forms. We personify the inanimate and anthropomorphose animals in order to imbue them with characteristics that show off the best (or worse!) of human nature. Our motivation may be magnanimity, humour, criticism, amusement, pride, propaganda or sheer whimsy.

Anthropomorphism is often seen to excess in popular culture where aided by modern marketing, this tendency has spawned a host of human-like creatures derived from non-human animate and inanimate things. Watch any animated film and you are bound to come across anthropomorphism in almost every scene. Japan has numerous examples in its popular culture and the soft toy industry lives richly on our propensity to make humans of animal totems that are cuddly and extremely human-like: The teddy bear is a case in point…

I came across the photograph that illustrates this article online recently. Photographer Suzi Eszterhas spent three months on the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya while she was living in Africa for three years.  This particular series of photos was captured in 2008 or 2009. The article accompanying the photos shows a degree of anthropomorphism in its prose, talking about a “family” of lions, the “Dad” playing with the cub, prattles on about “infancy” and “adulthood”, “rites of passage” and uses other anthropological jargon… And even Eszterhas embellishes with her explanation:
“That was literally the moment the cub first saw his dad ever. He kind of walked up shyly and then the dad immediately tried to play with him and the mom is watching the whole time to make sure the dad behaves.  The whole moment is really special.”

Why, looking at the photograph one can see the proud “Dad” smiling as the cub plays with him – even though we know animals really don't smile... It is tempting to anthropomorphose and one’s view of wild animals can be irrevocably altered by this approach. Eszterhas’ photos were taken after she very cautiously and patiently “infiltrated” the pride of lions and with infinite care managed to get the lions to tolerate her presence. If you or I approached the lions and wanted to cuddle the adorable cub and congratulate the “Dad” lion on the new arrival to the “Family”, I am sure the male, or more probably the lioness, would very quickly eliminate us from the equation.

It is fun to anthropomorphose and history tells us that humans have done it for millennia. But it’s also wise to remember where fantasy ends and where reality begins. I am sure that many kids (or for that matter quite a few adults!) have been mauled or killed by wild animals because they viewed as adorable anthropomorphic people-like creatures. Wild animals are primarily wild and secondarily animals…

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