Humanising Animals: Helpful or Harmful?

Victoria Simpson and Jared Piazza consider the upsides and downsides of animal anthropomorphism, and ask, “Which traits help animals the most?”

Feature photo credit: Annie Spratt

Meet Gunda

In the opening scene to the critically acclaimed film, Gunda, the audience is presented with an entrance to a barn, shot in black and white, with no accompanying music, captions, or voice-overs. All that can be heard is the faint humming of wildlife, and the squealing of a newly birthed piglet as she roles, unceremoniously, from the barn entrance. This entrance feels intimate, transfixing. It provides a portal, through which the audience can become immersed in the lives of animal protagonists: a mother sow (Gunda), her piglets, a one-legged chicken, and a small herd of ageing cows.

This stripping back of the film, by vegan director, Victor Kossakovsky, is clearly intentional. There is no interpretation or humanisation here. The director wants viewers to make up their own minds about the possibility of pigs having “consciousness and selfhood”.

Kossakovsky’s ultimate goal is to change human attitudes towards other species, giving cinematic space to animals that are not typically loved. A worthy venture, given the urgent need to improve the lives of animals raised on industrial farms. But is Kossakovsky’s strategy a good one? Will audiences come away with an increased respect for farmed animals? Might the witnessing of the humble, lived-experience of farmed animals, unfiltered and devoid of human projections, inspire real concern for these animals, or are viewers likely to leave the film unchanged?

Are pigs themselves their best advocates? Photo credit: Kenneth Schipper Vera 

Minding Farmed Animals

There is no denying that meat is palatable to many. But the process of slaughtering animals for food, is not. This tension between enjoying meat and believing meat harms animals, has been termed the “meat paradox”. Such a state of conflict or “dissonance” is unpleasant. Research suggests that humans employ a variety of strategies, many outside of their awareness, to avoid this unpleasant state.

For example, meat eaters often avoid thinking too deeply about the minds of the animals they eat. Such animals are thought to have lower cognitive capacities and are ascribed less sophisticated emotional abilities than animals not eaten. This act of denying animals thoughts and feelings has the psychological benefit of making it feel less wrong to cage and slaughter them.  Conversely, several studies have shown that when people think about animals, like pigs and cows, as having more sophisticated minds, they feel increased levels of guilt about eating them.

If thinking about animals as having qualities that humans have–e.g., the ability to imagine, reason, and love–increases our concern for them, then might “humanising” animals be something that animal advocates want to embrace? Or is it something that should be avoided because it robs animals of their uniqueness and places humans centre stage? We might ask, “Would the film, Gunda, have been more effective if Kossakovsky imposed a narration that drew explicit parallels between Gunda’s life and ours?” This question requires careful consideration, as how we answer it has implications for how we approach animal advocacy.

Anthropomorphism: Good or bad?

To answer this question, we find it useful to think of anthropomorphism on a sliding scale. Building on the work of psychologist, Nicolas Epley, one might think about it this way: on the extreme end, we have “absurd anthropomorphism”, where animals are caricatured and treated just as humans. An example of this would be Scrooge McDuck‘s love of money, greedily hoarding his vaults of gold. In its weaker form, we have “mind attribution” or the attribution of qualities to animals that humans also happen to possess. An example here would be the observation that fish, like humans, can cooperate; e.g., groupers and moray eels coordinate their actions to more effectively capture their coral-reef dwelling prey.

It is also important to consider who benefits from anthropomorphism: us or them? Research suggests that humans are naturally inclined to anthropomorphise, not just animals but all sorts of entities, like computers, cars, and other gadgets. Doing so can help people feel connected, particularly when feeling lonely or socially isolated. But does anthropomorphising animals help animals?

Here, we argue that weaker forms of anthropomorphism are likely to be more productive for animal advocacy than extreme forms, because they get us to think about the animal and not just stay within our own anthropocentric world.

Absurd anthropomorphism: A dog that reads literature. Photo credit: 2PhotoPots

Absurd anthropomorphism: Thinking about animals as humans

Many of us will be familiar with the children’s story, in which three little pigs construct houses of varying strengths to avoid being eaten by the big bad wolf. This, of course, is nonsensical: pigs may be fearful and clever, but they cannot construct houses out of straw, sticks or bricks. For many veg*ns, this story feels even more preposterous. Given the fact that pigs are one of the most widely consumed land animals – the big bad wolf in this story might as well be a human.

Children love animals, which is why a large percentage of picture books contain absurdly anthropomorphised animals in place of humans. A basic storyline, such as that of The three little pigs, not only becomes more intriguing with pig protagonists, but also allows for a rather graphic ending for the wolf. Had the “big bad wolf” been a “big bad man” meeting his end in a pot of boiling water, there may have been a few raised eyebrows from parents.

Picture books are undoubtedly designed to be as appealing as possible to children—this is the money-making side of children’s literature. If you can throw in an important moral message or two, without causing harm, even better. This is the pedagogical side of story books—they are meant to teach children lessons about the society they inhabit; for example, how to navigate difficult situations at school or with peers.

Sadly, the “society” that children inhabit is increasingly devoid of interactions with animals (cats and dogs being the exception). If you have read our recent interview with Dr Anastassiya Andrianova, then you know that caricaturing animals in children’s literature can be problematic because it spares parents an opportunity to have real conversations with children about how humans relate to animals. This sort of “absurd” anthropomorphism can even, at times, hinder children’s prosocial development, and interfere with their ability to retain facts about animals and the natural world.

The heart of the problem is that most uses of anthropomorphism in children’s literature is the “absurd” kind. That is, they involve depictions of animals “as” humans. Rather than attributing to them the impressive traits that they actually possess, animals are used as props in an entirely human world.

Weak anthropomorphism: Thinking about animals as having abilities we have

A form of anthropomorphism that may be of some benefit to animals is the softer kind. Instead of caricaturing animals, such that contact with the animal’s world is lost, a more subtle form of anthropomorphism involves recognising that animals exhibit behaviours similar to those found in humans. This form of humanisation remains tied to the animal’s own world. It recognises that animals are distinctive, yet nonetheless share qualities that humans have.

Studies shows, for example, that individuals who tend to anthropomorphise animals, in this ‘weak’ sense, also tend to avoid meat. Though the relationship is small, it seems to be explained by individuals who anthropomorphise having greater empathy towards animals and a greater concern for their welfare. By contrast, denying the existence of these shared characteristics in animals, what Frans de Waal calls “anthropodenial”, is a useful strategy for not having to concern oneself with their suffering.

Which traits should we emphasise?

If ascribing human-related traits to animals promotes concern for them, then an important, ancillary question inevitably arises: “Which human traits help animals the most?”

There may be plenty of traits that humans possess that, when ascribed to animals, will not benefit them and may even harm them. For example, humans are at times hostile and aggressive, but thinking about snakes as hostile and aggressive is unlikely to help their cause. The “mean wolf” stereotype used in the three pigs story is problematic because it is an absurd caricature of wolves. It is also problematic because people tend to have less concern for animals they see as threatening.

Alvin Chan suggests that successful anthropomorphism, at least in the context of animal welfare, relies on the emphasis of three specific traits: animal intelligence, prosocial behaviour, and the ability to suffer and feel pain. While more research is needed to know for sure, we surmise that traits indicative of an animals’ prosociality (i.e., being perceived as empathic, benevolent, sociable, caring) are likely to be valued more than other traits, even more so than animal intelligence. Why? Because humans ourselves are a highly social species that appreciate friendly and cooperative individuals. Brian Hare makes this point in his article, Survival of the Friendliest. The evolution of humans is marked by a tendency to self-domesticate, and this preference for benevolent traits holds for the animals we love, e.g., dogs and cats.

Probably the strongest evidence for this to date comes from research by Leach and colleagues (2021). They showed that, across a vast range of emotional and cognitive abilities, gleaned from studies of animal behaviour, traits related to an animal’s socio-moral abilities (e.g., empathy, cooperation) were most predictive of guilt over harming the animal, more so than “cold” cognitive traits, such as the ability to plan, communicate, use tools, or learn. In a similar vein, Possidónio and colleagues (2019) found that across 150 different animal species it was attributes reflective of being “cute” that predicted feelings of care and protection towards animals more so than animal intelligence.

Studies by Wang and Basso (2019) also provide some evidence that corroborates this idea. They found that when meat eaters were made to think about pigs as possessing positive social traits (e.g., as friendly and playful) they felt more guilt about eating pork than when not thinking about pigs in this way. Likewise, Kim and Yoon (2021) recently found that thinking about pigs as having humanlike social skills increased meat eaters willingness to buy a healthier, non-meat option, whereas learning about pigs’ humanlike intelligence did not.

One reason we may value prosocial traits so much is that they signal that an animal is “like us” in the most meaningful way. Having an understanding of what others are feeling and responding accordingly, is a distinctively human ability; one that we highly value in our own kind.

Like us, pigs are a highly social species. Photo credit: Marek Piwnicki

Another reason might be that prosocial traits are easier to perceive and corroborate than are non-social intelligence traits. Learning that pigs can use mirrors sounds impressive. But it may leave doubt about the methods used by scientists to “prove” the ability. Thus, animal intelligence may be easier to deny or shrug off, especially when people are motivated to maintain an activity that involves animal suffering. By contrast, even the most hardened skeptic will struggle to deny what it means to see two pigs, or a pig and a human, gleefully locked in a snuggly embrace. (Click here and give it a try!)

One potential boundary condition on our claim involves the repertoire of the animal in question. Some animals may not display prosocial traits so readily as pigs do, or in ways that we recognise (e.g., parenting and cooperative relationships among fish). For such animals, could Chan‘s third trait, the capacity for suffering, offer a more foundational attribute for raising moral concerns?

In at least one study, researchers found that drawing consumers’ attention to the suffering of cows–through images and messages on the packaging of products–induced more guilt and reduced intentions to purchase at levels greater than images and messages suggestive of cattle intelligence or prosociality. This potentially highlights the benefits of using ‘appeals to suffering’ for animals that lack the social repertoire of pigs, though additional research is needed to see if these results extend to other animals and real purchasing behaviour.

Closing Thoughts and Recommendations

So, should Kossakovsky have used a voice over in Gunda? Setting aside any artistic reasons for avoiding narration, we conclude, “No.” Kossakovsky’s unadulterated portrayal of pigs managed to capture their incredibly social nature, and their naturally playful and affectionate behaviour is enough to stir our moral emotions. Kossakovsky cleverly disperses more provocative moments throughout the film, gently tugging at the viewer’s heartstrings with glimpses of animal suffering. The cinematic decision to avoid a narrative approach keeps viewers grounded in the pig’s world and allows viewers to make attributions about the animals that bridge their world with ours.

That’s not to say that the viewers who most need to watch the film will do so or will do so with an open and welcoming spirit. And, of course, not all animals are so lucky to share in the socio-emotional repertoire of pigs. Solitary species and animals that lack the blatantly “warm” behaviours characteristic of mammalian affection will likely require different sorts of interventions than those that endear us to pigs.

Authors: Victoria Simpson & Jared Piazza

One Comment on “Humanising Animals: Helpful or Harmful?

  1. Nice piece. But don’t forget Gordon Burghardt’s call for the use of “critical anthropomorphism” as a mode of research in animal behavior. Burghardt, G. M. (2013). Cognitive ethology and critical anthropomorphism: A snake with two heads and hog-nose snakes that play dead. In Cognitive Ethology (pp. 73-110). Psychology Press.


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