Do characters like Dumbo and Simba make us more empathetic to real-life animals? Or less? Moving Giants investigates.
“What kind of animals does everybody want to see?,” The gregarious safari guide asked the group of six eager tourists as they waited for their open-aired Jeeps to arrive.
Everyone had come on this tour to see wildlife across the African savanna and the species they were most excited to see were of the iconic (read: predictable) variety.
Elephants and lions and cheetahs, oh my!
After the adults had called out their requests, a teenager who had traveled with her parents spoke out.
“Warthog!,” She called out.
The rest of the group seemed surprised – clearly whether or not they saw a warthog was not of any real concern. Warthogs are not considered the most photogenic of creatures, after all.
In contrast, the guide was unfazed by the ask. “Awww!” he said “You’re a Pumbaa fan.”
For anyone who has lived under a rock for the past 24 years, Pumbaa makes up one half of the infamous sidekick duo in the cult Disney classic, The Lion King. He is an anthropomorphized warthog who, along with his meerkat bestie Timon, helps Simba (our lion protagonist) retake his rightful place as leader of the animal kingdom.
“It happens all the time,” Ibrah Mkwizu, founder and operator of Afrishare Trekking & Safaris, tells Moving Giants. “When westerners go on safaris, they talk a lot about The Lion King.” Of course, it isn’t just limited to the one film. “A lot of times, they’re interested in seeing an animal because it was their favorite character in a book or a movie. Adults too.”
The anthropomorphizing of fictional animals is nothing new. Animals take on human traits and behaviors in tales that go all the way back to Aesop. The contemporary landscape looks no different. From classic favorites like Winnie-the-Pooh to newer fan favorites like Pua the Pig in Disney’s Moana.
In case you're lost, anthropomorphization is defined as "the attribution of human characteristics or behavior to an animal, plant or object."
A highly contentious question in the conservation community is whether anthropomorphizing animals is a net positive or a net negative for engendering human empathy toward animals. It’s a complicated question and there is no straightforward answer. There are examples of it both being a boon to conservation as well as leading to the devastation of an entire species.
Here, we break down the arguments.
The greatest problem with anthropomorphism is also, perhaps, its greatest asset: It works.
Humans like seeing themselves in other animals. Studies consistently show that the more human-aligned a creature is in a museum exhibit or wildlife experience, the more likely people are to develop actionable empathy.
“Anthropomorphism is a path to knowledge,” John Fraser, conservation psychologist and CEO of New Knowledge, told The Guardian. “Empathy is essential to promoting concern for animals and species, and if projecting our human perceptual world on those beings helps people on that learning path, it's important.”
It's a powerful tool but that power can also yield unintended (and sometimes highly problematic) outcomes.
This is a relatively new term in conservation for a relatively old phenomenon: when we allow the animal in question to be defined by the way they are portrayed anthropomorphically.
It’s such a dominant trope in storytelling that many people have come to see the real-life versions of these animals with the same characteristics they are portrayed with in the tale – without even realizing it’s having this impact.
Owls are wise. Lions are regal. Foxes are tricksters. These are all literary tropes that even many adults have come to accept as aligning with reality. The truth is that all of these notions are purely human constructs.
This manifests in many ways but one of the most pervasive is letting love for an animal character become a desire for that animal as a pet.
The titular character in the film, Finding Nemo was so beloved that its popularity resulted in children wanting a clownfish as a pet.
This led to massive overfishing of reefs to keep up with demand. Over one million clownfish were harvested, decimating the species in the wild.
Likewise, the Game of Thrones series made fans eager for dogs that looked like the show's fictional Direwolves. Husky and Malamute puppies were gifted en masse for the 2017 holiday season only to be dumped at shelters when the dogs behaved less like Direwolves and more like, well, dogs.
Another symptom of anthropomorphic creep happens when we interact with real-life animals and project anthropomorphic expectations onto them, judging their behavior accordingly.
A 2013 study from The Journal of Biodiversity and Conservation gives the following example:
"Japanese tourists at monkey feeding parks understand the feeding interaction as akin to Japanese gift-giving traditions. However, the tourists are often upset that monkeys also steal food and fight with one another to access it, which they understand as a rude violation of the meaning of the feeding interaction."
Animal activist and author of the YA fantasy Your Robot Dog Will Die, Arin Greenwood tells Moving Giants that there certainly can be negative consequences of anthropomorphism. "I think there can be negative consequences when we impose human characteristics on animals, instead of trying to understand them as the creatures they are — for example, sometimes people see captive dolphins or whales 'smiling' and think that means they are happy, when the truth is that captivity is almost always cruel for marine mammals. Overall, though, I hope it's a positive, when we have animals in literature. I hope that helps readers care about animals, helps them want to do good for animals. At least for me, it was one of my (sneaky) goals in writing my book Your Robot Dog Will Die — to tell an exciting story, that would make readers come away wanting to make this a better world for animals. I hoped that some would even go adopt a dog, after reading my book. (Please, if anyone's done so — let me know!)"
Prioritizing certain animals because they're a fan favorite instead of caring for ecosystems as a whole makes for a nightmare in conservation.
“Development of a caring attitude might... conflict with the promotion of conservation as an investment in the intrinsic or biodiversity values of species — investments that are ethically or pragmatically advisable whether one has empathy for the species in question or not," according to one study on the subject published in the Springer Netherlands journal in 2013. "For example, if marketing of anthropomorphized representations increases caring towards species A, this might be at the expense of conservation actions in support of the ecologically important, but unmarketed and thus uncared for, species B”
It becomes a game of pick and choose – and laymen rarely have the knowledge or nuance to contextualize their concern for an individual animal or species.
That said, anthropomorphizing animals can be such a successful means of raising awareness that many conservation-focused NGOs have taken learnings from children's literature and film and turned this into a fundraising strategy. Instead of asking for donations broadly, they might try and increase tangibility by honing in on a specific species or even a specific animal.
We only need to look at domestic animal-rescue organizations on social media to see this dynamic at play. “Donate to help save our animals,” is rarely the rallying cry. We’re more likely to hear about the plight of an individual animal who needs, for example, a surgery. The notion that you can help save Bailey the Boxer offers a sense of personal connection and individual accomplishment.
The problem with this at an international NGO level is that only certain animals receive the bulk of funding -- meaning animals that humans can more easily see themselves in are more likely to receive attention and money.
The notion that animals can only be endearing or important when seen as human-like is problematic. It can promote a vision of the world where the earth and everything on it is only relevant in relation to humans and that attitude is responsible for everything from desertification to global warming.
According to Greenwood, however, anthropomorphizing (a term she's not a huge fan of) might just be misunderstood. "I think there's a tendency to think that animals in literature are mostly used as metaphor or allegory. I don't see why their roles have to be that limited, though. Animals are complex creatures with thoughts, feelings, the capacity for pleasure and pain. They have inner lives — they feel, they think, they act based on those feelings," Greenwood tells Moving Giants. "Dogs, pigs, cats, birds, dolphins, even fish — we may not always be able to understand what they are thinking and communicating, but we know that they are thinking and communicating. At this stage, it seems fair to assume that more or less every living creature has the capacity for thought and feelings, and the only limitation is whether we are able to understand them."
In that sense, anthropomorphizing might be more about showing that characteristics that we have traditionally viewed as exclusively human are broadly applicable to other animals as well. Armed with that perspective, it might not be about a false notion of sameness but a very real one.