Don’t Pet the Jaguars: The Consequences of Humanizing Animals

Every so many months it happens again: someone crosses the barrier into a zoo animal’s cage or encounters an animal in the wild, expecting it to be friendly and docile, only to be confronted with the fact that they are called wild animals for a reason. Take the recent instance of an Arizona woman who was attacked after climbing over the barrier of a jaguar’s cage at Wildlife World Zoo, Aquarium, and Safari Park. Or the now-infamous incident involving Harambe, the gorilla that was shot when he turned aggressive toward a toddler who fell into his cage. In both cases, the onlookers were shocked that the reaction of the animal was vastly different from how a human might have responded.

So why do these things happen? When did we lose our awareness of the fact that wild animals, majestic and incredible as they are, are also dangerous creatures that do not have the same moral agency as humans? And how did we reach the point where lawyers observe stories of an animal’s death garnering more of an emotional response in a courtroom than the death of a child?

From the Billy Goats Gruff to Rescue Pets, the tendency to depict animals with humanlike characteristics is nothing new. What is new is that the fantastical is not coupled with reality the way that it used to be. Instead, we have reached a point where childrens’ (and adults’) primary impressions and understanding of the natural world is through the medium of entertainment, and more specifically, entertainment that presents animals through the lens of fantasy rather than reality. Such a mentality can lead to conditioning which thinks an appropriate response to a spooked wild animal is to pet it.

To be fair, I grew up reading Frog and ToadThe Mouse and the Motorcycle, and Bedtime for Frances. I don’t hate fictional stories about animals, in fact I very much enjoy them. But I also grew up in a rural community and was not unaccustomed to coming across the remains of a deer that had been taken down by a pack of coyotes the night before or hearing the scream of a rabbit that had just been selected as a hawk’s dinner. My situation was similar to the one portrayed by Laura Ingalls in the Little House on the Prairie series, where stories of interactions with wild animals abound. But in Laura’s case they were just that—wild. And as wild animals, they do unpredictable things that can, at times, pose a threat to humans.

In a 2014 study, researchers found that children were more likely to develop an unrealistic understanding of animals if their primary exposure was through fictional works in which animals act like humans. In an interview with National Geographic, Patricia Ganea points out that:

Children are more likely to think of animals having human characteristics if exposed to books with fantastical images and anthropomorphic language. Also, children learn more facts about animals from books that use factual language and realistic illustration.

When asked if this means that she is opposed to children reading fiction, Ganea says that she is not; fiction is important for the development of the imagination. It is important, however, to be aware of how anthropomorphism affects children. Ideas developed in childhood might stick around a little more than we realize. She goes on to observe,

The tendency to anthropomorphize nature is not just in children. You find it even in adults. The question is whether these inaccurate ideas early on will interfere with the acquisition of knowledge later on.

Children should be encouraged to foster their imagination, and anthropomorphism can help that happen. An imaginative space provides children with opportunities to process reality and develop empathy.

The problem arises, however, when we fail to define the lines between fantasy and reality. Downplaying the uniqueness of human beings and disconnecting ourselves from nature to the point that we forget how nature works is harmful to both humans and animals. When we treat animals like humans, we expect them to respond like humans. This leads to instances of people getting attacked, forcing situations where an animal must be restrained or killed in order to prevent harm.

As a society, is it time that we stop sheltering ourselves from reality and come to grips with the fact that humans and animals are very different?