A video of a crow (embedded below) that appears to love spending his free time sledding down a roof on a jar lid has garnered over two million clicks. That is two million people enjoying humankind's ability to look at an animal and think we know how it is feeling. We love sledding. Birds love sledding. We love birds that love sledding. Those emotions bring animals into the fold of the human tribal instinct, giving us a subliminal urge to protect our funny friends.
But is anthropomorphizing an asset to the environmental movement? Or does it result in prejudices that inhibit our ability to understand what is really needed to protect the species that form the intricate network of life on this planet?
Anthropomorphizing brings us out of our selfish prioritization of human needs. It helps us connect to the world of species around us. Human compassion for dolphins or pandas makes these animals the poster children of the environmental movement. To a great extent, our love for, and joy in, the animals around us fuels our efforts to protect them.
Those who attempt to defend sharks face a more difficult audience, fighting to suppress our natural instinct to think the world might be a better place without man-eating tooth-machines carousing through our oceans. Nonetheless, there are certainly cases where humans ignore the aggressive nature of animals, trying to hug a polar bear for example.
In the other extreme, we are perfectly capable of taking a package of industrially-farmed pork with a smiling pig hailing us from the label off of the grocery store shelf for dinner. Thus, human needs take priority over our anthropomorphized friendships with the animal kingdom.
For environmental scientists, these inherently contradictory human emotions form an obstacle course. A healthy environmental depends upon the interrelationships of many species, not just the cute and cuddly ones. Getting funding as well as getting support for decisions prioritizing the interests of the eco-system over the economic or personal self-interest of humans poses challenges. How many clicks can a scientist get on a topic like the foraging habits of sea birds?