Anthropomorphism and Animal Rights

Why are Animal Activists Often Accused of Anthropomorphism?

woman caring for bull

Getty Images / Chalermwoot Soopasook

So you’ve just arrived home to find your couch shredded, the cupboard ransacked and your cat’s dinner dish lying empty in your bedroom. Your dog, you note with certainty, has a “guilty look" on his face because he knows he's done something wrong. This is a perfect example of anthropomorphism. Dictionary.Com defines anthropomorphism as “ascribing human form or attributes to a being ….not human.”

Most people who live with dogs know their dogs so well that any nuance of a change in the dog's facade is quickly recognized and labeled. But really, if we don't use the word guilty, how else would we describe "that look?"

Some dog trainers dismiss these claims of "guilty looks" on a dog as nothing more than conditioned behavior.The dog only looks that way because he remembers the way you reacted the last time you came home to a similar scene. He's not looking guilty, but rather he knows you will react badly and it's this expectation of punishment that causes the look on his face.

Animal rights activists are dismissed as being anthropomorphic when we claim 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 their own evil behavior.

It’s OK to say an animal is breathing, no one will charge us with anthropomorphism because no one doubts that animals breathe. But if we say the animal is happy, sad, depressed, grieving, in mourning or afraid, we’re dismissed as being anthropomorphic. In dismissing claims that animals emote, those who want to exploit them rationalize their actions.

Anthropomorphism v. Personification

"Personification" is the giving of human-like qualities to an inanimate object, while anthropomorphism usually applies to animals and deities. More importantly, 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, prompting to ask, "Why Do We Anthropomorphize?" In other words, it's OK for Sylvia Plath to give voice to a mirror and a lake, giving inanimate objects human-like qualities in order to entertain and move her audience, but it's not OK for animal rights activists to say that a dog in a laboratory is suffering for the purpose of changing the way the dog is treated.

Do Animal Rights Activists Anthropomorphize?

When an animal rights activist says that an elephant suffers and feels pain when hit with a bullhook; or a mouse suffers from being blinded with hairspray, and chickens feel pain when their feet develop sores from standing on the wire floor of a battery cage; that is not anthropomorphism. Since these animals have a central nervous system much like ours, it’s not much of a leap to deduce that their pain receptors work much like ours.

Non-human animals may not have the exact same experience as humans, but identical thoughts or feelings are not required for moral consideration. Furthermore, not all humans have emotions in the same way - some are sensitive, insensitive, or overly sensitive - yet all are entitled to the same basic human rights.

Accusations of Anthropomorphism

Animal rights activists are accused of anthropomorphism when we talk about animals suffering or having emotions, even though, through studies and observation, biologists agree that animals can feel emotions.

In July, 2016, National Geographic published an article entitled “Look Into This Dolphin’s Eyes and Tell Me That’s Not Grief! by Maddalena Bearzi for the Ocean Conservation Society’s “Ocean News.” Bearzi writes of her experience on June 9, 2016 while she was working on a research boat with a team of Marine Biology students from Texas A&M University. Leading the team was Dr. Bernd Wursig, a well-respected cetologist and head of the Texas A&M Marine Biology Group. The team came upon a dolphin who was keeping vigil with a dead dolphin, presumably a pod-mate. The dolphin was circling the corpse, moving it up and down and from side to side, clearly grieving. Dr. Wursig noted “For a pelagic creature like this is so highly unusual (to be alone with a dead one, and away from its group)…because they are scared to be alone… they are just not lone creatures and the animal was obviously suffering.” The team described the scene with much sadness as it was obvious the dolphin knew his friend was dead but refused to accept that fact.

Dr. Wursig cannot be easily dismissed as a sentimental animal rights activist who anthropomorphizes animals carelessly. His report clearly described the dolphin as being in mourning…..a very human condition.

Though this particular dolphin was holding vigil over a dead animal, many non-human animals have been observed helping others of their species in need, a behavior scientists call epimeletic. If they can't care, why do they do it?

Animal activists are calling people out who hurt animals, and their use of anthropomorphism is justified when seeking justice and social change. Change can be scary and difficult, so people consciously or subconsciously seek ways to resist change. Rejecting the fact that animals suffer and have emotions can make it easier for people to continue exploiting animals without worrying about the ethical implications. One way of rejecting that fact is to call it "anthropomorphism" even though it is the result of direct scientific evidence.

There may be some who truly do not believe that animals are capable of suffering or emotions, as French philosopher/mathematician Rene Descartes claimed he did, but Descartes was himself a vivisector and had reason to deny the obvious. Current scientific information contradicts Descartes' 17th century view. Biology and research into the sentience of non-human animals has come a long way since Descarte's time, and will continue to evolve as we learn more about the non-human animals with whom we share this planet. 

Edited by Michelle A. Rivera.