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Anthropomorphic Double-Talk: Can Animals Be Happy But Not Unhappy? No!

Some critics of anthropomorphism want it both ways

Some critics of anthropomorphism want it both ways but their double-talk is very misleading

Over the years I’ve noticed a curious phenomena. If a scientist says that an animal is happy, no one questions it, but if a scientist says that an animal is unhappy, then charges of anthropomorphism are immediately raised. This "anthropomorphic double-talk" seems mostly aimed at letting humans feel better about themselves. Recently Dr. Alexandra Horowitz showed that we're not always correct when we think that dogs are feeling guilty about having done something wrong but it's important to note that she also says that she's not saying animals can't or don't feel guilt. (We've written a paper together showing why humans engage in anthropomorphism; Horowitz, A. C. and M. Bekoff. 2007. Naturalizing anthropomorphism: Behavioral prompts to our humanizing of animals. Anthrozoös 20, 23-36.)

A good example anthropomoprhic double-talk is the story of Ruby, a forty-three-year-old African elephant living at the Los Angeles Zoo. In fall 2004 Ruby had been shipped back to the Los Angeles Zoo from the Knoxville Zoo in Tennessee because people who saw Ruby in Knoxville felt that she was lonely and sad. A videotape taken by the late Gretchen Wyler of the US Humane Society showed Ruby standing alone and swaying. Wyler said Ruby behaved like "a desperate elephant." Sad and lonely animals often rock back and forth repeatedly. This stereotyped behavior is not normal and is characteristic of bored and distressed animals.

Wyler and others who claimed that Ruby was unhappy were accused of being anthropomorphic by people who thought that Ruby was doing just fine, both in Knoxville and again in Los Angeles. The former director of conservation and science for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), Michael Hutchins, claimed that it’s bad science to attribute human-like feelings to animals, saying: "Animals can’t talk to us so they can’t tell us how they feel." He was critical of people who claimed that Ruby wasn’t doing well in captivity and was unhappy because she lived alone and had been shipped from one place to another during the past few years, leaving her friends behind. Hutchins went on to discount the view that Ruby was unhappy, saying: "An animal might look agitated, but it might not be. It might be playing. It might look like it’s playing, but be quite aggressive."

Hutchins is right - it is possible to mistakenly classify an animal’s behavior, but it’s wrong to imply we can never figure it out. Careful and detailed behavioral studies have shown time and again that we can indeed differentiate and understand animal behavior, and how it differs in various social contexts.

Does it matter whether Ruby was happy or sad? It does indeed. If she were shown to be unhappy, the zoo would be obligated to care for her better. Hutchins felt it was "good science" to rebut any claims to the contrary. But seeing positive emotions in Ruby is as anthropomorphic as seeing negative emotions. This didn't seem to faze Hutchins at all.

Inappropriate anthropomorphism is always a danger, for it is easy to get lazy and presume that the way we see and experience the world must be the only way. It is also easy to become self-serving and hope that because we want or need animals to be happy, they are. In fact, the only guard against the inappropriate use of anthropomorphism is knowledge, or the detailed study of the minds and emotions of animals.

Many researchers now recognize that we must be anthropomorphic when we discuss animal emotions but that if we do it carefully, what I call biocentric anthropomoprhism, we can still give due consideration to the animals' point of view. Being anthropomorphic is doing what comes naturally. No matter what we call it, most agree that animals and humans share may traits including emotions. Thus, we're not inserting something human into animals, but we're identifying commonalities and then using human language to communicate what we observe.

Evidence is also surfacing that anthropomorphism may be a hard-wired mode for conceptualizing the world in general, not just other animals. Recent research by Andrea Heberlein and Ralph Adolphs shows that a part of the brain called the amygdala is used when we impart intention and emotions to inanimate objects or events, such as when we talk about "angry" weather patterns or "battling" waves. Heberlein and Adolph studied a patient called SM with damage to the amygdala and discovered that SM described a film of animated shapes in entirely asocial and geometric terms though SM had normal visual perception. Their research suggests that the "human capacity for anthropomorphizing draws on some of the same neural systems as do basic emotional responses." My reading of this research and my own experience with a wide variety of animals is that "We feel, therefore we anthropomorphize." And we’re programmed to see humanlike mentality in events where it cannot possibly be involved.

Anthropomorphism is a much more complex phenomenon than we would have expected. It may very well be that the seemingly natural human urge to impart emotions onto animals - far from obscuring the "true" nature of animals - may actually reflect a very accurate way of knowing. And, the knowledge that is gained, supported by much solid scientific research, is essential for making ethical decisions on behalf of animals.

(Excerpted from my book The Emotional Lives of Animals)

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