I’ve never been a fan of anthropomorphism – the fancy term for attributing human motivations to animal behaviour – because I’ve seen it as interfering with true understanding of why dogs do what they do and how to successfully modify their behaviour. To some degree I still think this, but I’m starting to see what this attitude has going for it.
Lisan Jutras of The Globe and Mail wrote Why there’s nothing wrong with anthropomorphism. In the article, she interviews Barbara King, author of the book How Animals Grieve. King sees nothing wrong with anthropomorphisation, but she says it should be approached with ‘careful, thoughtful and critical observation’:
Anthropomorphism means that we’re projecting our feelings on other animals. And that itself is something to be careful of, but the way to handle it is to look very carefully at what the animal is doing over a period of time. If you see two animals clearly vital to each other’s well-being over a long period of time, such that one is thrown into physical and emotional disarray if there’s separation, I feel very comfortable calling that love. In other words, it’s not as if I would ever accept that term without a period of very close, careful, thoughtful and critical observation.
A measured, skeptical approach to behaviours that people would interpret as being elicited by specific emotions is key. For instance, when Tierce licks my hand, I don’t think that love motivates it; I think the pizza sauce does. The fact that he likes being in the room with either me or Mischa and will voluntarily follow us to be near us… that’s harder. Is it love or is it the comfort of being with his pack?
Tierce: I do it to comfort you with my presence. It seems to have a calming effect on you.
Me: I don’t follow you around the house.
Tierce: What about that time that one day?
Me: I was trying to catch you to give you a bath!
Tierce: It’s okay to admit your dependency on me.
Another thing that resonated with me is King’s statement about why we are so resistant to anthropomorphism:
Why has the scientific community been resistant to anthropomorphism?
That’s a question I think about a lot. In part, it’s because it impacts how we treat animals. To really sit there and think about the fact that, let’s say, a dairy cow who is at a factory farm and has her offspring taken away repeatedly to slaughter might be feeling something about that, or a chimpanzee kept in a biomedical lab who sees his friends and companions in next-door cages being knocked down repeatedly, maybe killed by these procedures – they’re in anguish. We’re implicated in what we eat, or how we go about our entertainment. I think that’s hard for everybody, and I include myself.
Ouch. It’s true that pigs are highly intelligent and live in social groups. They are arguably more intelligent than dogs. I know this and accept this as a fact, based on the available evidence. I’ve also eaten my share of bacon. Could I eat dog meat? Probably not.
Tierce: Well I’m relieved.
Me: Don’t be. You would make someone a nice set of gloves.
Tierce: Aren’t you against using dog and cat fur?
Me: Um… kinda.
Tierce: Define ‘kinda’. And note that I’m going behind the couch for this conversation.
Me: Wuss. Well, I’ve gotta say, it doesn’t sit well with me, using dog and cat fur. But I use leather products and I eat pigs and cows, so I don’t feel I can fairly lobby against it.
Tierce: This doesn’t reassure me.
Me: You’re a family pet in a first world country. You probably don’t have anything to worry about.
Tierce: But if I was a pig, I would.
Me: Um, if you weren’t a pet, ah, yeah.
Tierce: I’m glad I’m not a pig, then. Bacon tastes great, by the way.
The other thing that Jutras touches on is our habit of spoiling our pets. Which I totally do not do. Ever.
Okay, I’ve never paid for a spa treatment for Tierce. However, the amount of stuff I have for him is largely unnecessary for his happiness. He does not care if his leash has several ways to clip to a tree. He just cares that it’s on him at all. Likewise, he can respond just as happily to kibble as he does the super-special training treats available in stores. And he doesn’t give a crap whether he eats out of one of our dinner bowls or a special one that’s all his. All the extra stuff I buy is for me, not him.
At least I realize this. Faint praise if I realize it and still get a $3 dog cookie from Bark and Fitz. (Even though Tierce loves them and it’s fun watching him eat a carob-dipped peanut-butter bone-shaped cookie.) Or the bacon cupcakes at Woofles (which Tierce loves like nothing else in this world). Or… let’s face it. I’m just as addicted to the whimsy of treating Tierce as a near-human as the next obsessive dog lover.
I just wouldn’t call myself an animal lover in general. I’ve bonded with dogs, but not with pigs or cows or chickens, so I have a problem with killing and eating dogs, but not pigs, cows or chickens. When viewing this fact, I’m wondering why I don’t make the leap and just not eat any meat. I don’t really have a good answer for that. Meat is tasty and I don’t object to humane slaughter (although I doubt my Wendy’s hamburgers necessarily go gently into that good night). And then there’s Tierce, who I refuse to feed a vegan diet to because I don’t feel that dogs were built to live on 100% vegetable matter.
I guess anthropomorphisation only goes as far as the animals I give a shit about. I think that’s kind of true for most people.