Anthropomorphism: The A-Word

by Graham Williamson, Wildlife Rehabilitator

We often talk about other animals, plants, and non-living objects as if they have human emotions and motives. When a cat knocks a mug off a table, we might interpret it as an act of revenge. When we speak softly to an injured wild animal, because we intend to comfort them, we assume that sound is comforting to that animal. This is anthropomorphism, and it is often an unconscious part of our lives.

Peregrine Falcon eyas (nestling) is fed by a puppet resembling an adult falcon
A Peregrine Falcon eyas (nestling) is fed by a puppet resembling an adult falcon in the Wildlife Care Center.

Perhaps it is so prevalent because of the way our human brains work. In psychology, pareidolia is the phenomenon that causes people to see faces on the moon or rabbits in cloud shapes. Loosely, pareidolia can be described as the projection of what we are familiar with onto what is unknown or unfamiliar. Our brains naturally fill in gaps of our perception. It’s an autonomic response, and we do it with other people all the time. The wide adoption of the golden rule (treat others the way you want to be treated) is an example of this—until we learn differently, we assume others want and need the same things as we do. In light of these psychological forces, anthropomorphism makes sense. When we have so much trouble shifting our perspective to that of another human being, how much harder is it to do so for something as entirely alien as another species?

So why talk about anthropomorphism? Is it good or bad? There are certainly arguments for both sides, but in the context of wildlife rehabilitation, anthropomorphism is often a barrier to our goals. Animals are not people, and they don’t experience the world the way humans do. If we want to better understand animal behavior and connect with them, we must first understand and question our own unconscious assumptions.

We are not so distinct from animals that there is no overlap; they feel hunger, keep themselves clean, and care for their young. Animals can have complex social interactions, be parentally protective, and learn from past experience. All of these observable behaviors are similar to our own, and it is not anthropomorphism to call a behavior what it is. We still need to apply our understanding of animal behavior and natural history, of course—lion cubs play to develop muscles and practice hunting and killing behaviors they’ll need when they’re older. But humans play to develop physical, mental, and social skills they’ll need later in life as well, and we can reasonably make connections between the experience of play.

Anthropomorphism begins when we ascribe human motives and reasoning to behaviors, and it can lead to a serious disconnect. The internet is full of “cute animal” pictures and videos where the animal is exhibiting fear. People make similar assumptions when they find injured wildlife and hold them in their arms, wrapped in a blanket, on the drive over. Feeling securely wrapped and held may calm human babies, but not wild birds, which are not cradled or held by their parents or peers the way primates are. When we anthropomorphize animals, we are really telling ourselves what we want to think their behavior means, instead of interpreting the behavior for what it is. We are trying to save the animal, so we want to believe they understand our intentions and are holding still to aid us, instead of freezing in fear. The truth is, the less human contact an injured wild animal experiences, the more comfortable and safe they will feel. With younger animals, reducing contact also reduces the likelihood of imprinting, which can make an animal unreleasable.

The nestling Great Horned Owl standing in a defensive position, wings spread, and trying to look as scary as possible to get me (the predator) away.

Another reason to push back against anthropomorphism is it can erase animals’ natural value. A healthy planet relies on complex, balanced, and diverse ecosystems. Amazing animals and plants, fungi, and protists play varying roles in maintaining these incredible functioning systems. When we try to humanize wildlife, it begins to chip away in our own minds the distinct and irreplaceable position, value, and function these animals hold in our world. In wildlife rehabilitation, we need people who see a bird with a broken wing to understand that if they’d broken their arm, they would want help getting to the hospital; to recognize how urbanization and development displaces wildlife from their homes and introduces countless unfamiliar hazards; and act to personally and collectively live in a more harmonious way. This is truly empathy: a person being able to recognize another animal’s pain without experiencing it themself. Can anthropomorphism help open the door to empathy? Perhaps. Finding similarity can sometimes make empathy easier. But boiling an experience down to only the similarities, or imposing false similarities, is not empathy and can also lead to harm.

Anthropomorphism is taught to us from a young age and normalized throughout our lives, so it is not something we can simply switch on or off. Through raising awareness and recognizing when we do it, we can unlearn what has been instilled in us and begin to appreciate wildlife behavior in a more authentic light. The point of discussing our natural tendency toward anthropomorphism and distinguishing it from empathy is to highlight how drastically different these animals’ experiences are from our own—our exciting up-close encounter with an injured animal can be utterly terrifying for them. Empathizing with wildlife can be difficult because of how dissimilar they are from us, but the experience is always worth it. Empathy does not end with “look how similar you are to me,” but with “I recognize what harm has been done, and I want to help.” It is integral to wildlife rehabilitation and conservation, and our work will always improve the more we all learn to practice it.