Of mice and men …… reflections on recent anthrozoological findings

An article has been published in a daily newspaper exploring the reasons why humans love some animals and hate some others.  Hal Herzog, a renowned Anthrozoologist has opined that it is our subconscious projection of a set of behaviours onto the animals we see and interact with that makes them familiar to us thereby making us like them. We, in fact, look for features in our pets that have semblance with features of members of our families and “the closer the match the more familiar the animal seems” [1]. That in turn gives the cue to cuddle or castigate.

I find the view quite interesting. And I have some observations of my own.

Before delving into the depths of hypothesis, it might be best to explain what anthrozoology is. It is a newly emerging field of study that deals chiefly with the interaction between humans and animals. The term has been coined from two Greek words; anthropos meaning human and zoon meaning animal. Wikipedia describes anthrozoology as the science focusing on all aspects of the human-animal bond and a bridge between the natural and social sciences [2]. No other relationship in the world is as colourful or complex as that between man and animal. As pet, as food, as transport, as threat; animals and humans go long back in their association. That relation has finally found scientific approval to be studied and analysed which in turn promises legal intervention in case of abuse and dispute. The liaison between man and animal is finally legit.

Back to the main topic of discussion, I am inclined to believe that we tend to favour animals which we think have some resemblances with objects of our affection. As has been reported in the daily, Harvard Biologist Stephen Jay Gould thought Walt Disney drew Mickey Mouse with big eyes to make him resemble a human child [3]. I believe his theory and can support it citing examples of numerous people I know, mostly women, who regard their pets as their kids and care for them likewise.

The question is why do we do it? Why do we subconsciously relate animals to children or other objects of our affections? The answer may quite simply be the same logic that makes us consider huge predators on television sweet and lovable. Safety.

The pivotal purpose of existence, human or otherwise, is to survive and sustain. In a poet’s words, creation was intended to prolong and endure. So, keeping out of harm’s way and defence are basic purposes of life. Instinct guides most animals to avoid potential life threatening situations and keeps them safe. Humans are no exceptions. We can recognise unsafe situations like all animals. However, instead of acting instinctively, we apply our knowledge and analyse the threat and then react. And precisely because of that reason, when shown images of mighty predators napping or grooming, we can analyse the threat aspect, and that being zero, our alarm responses subside, and in some cases our emotional responses get triggered and we end up considering the situation beautiful.

So safety is foremost in all our activities. Since everyday situations and lifelong relationships do not offer big cash rewards to live dangerously, as opposed to some overhyped television stunt action programs, caution and security become the thumb rule of human living. All our actions are, usually, well judged and we pick our alliances with prudence. Interacting with animals, especially in a regular basis, also calls for caution. That is why we relate.

Relating some unknown and alien entity to something well known and well understood object reduces the danger and threat associated with it, at least, in the subconscious. When we encounter an animal, as per the above stated theory of Dr. Herzog, we look for semblances with our known world. In event of finding or failure to find semblances, we project our preset behaviour on this animal, the same way we behave with the object in our known world; by either loving it or hating it. Our goal, along the entire process, is to identify the unknown with the known to ensure our own safety. We relate because it makes us feel safe.

So every time a hysteric cat-lady goes gaga over her loving feline’s antics, instead of getting irritated, try thinking of all the complex psychology that is at work behind her feline obsession. All around the world, through all ages, people have kept pets and loved them more than their own kids sometimes. Childless people have doted upon and devoted their life to the care of their animal companions. They, unbeknownst to themselves, have related their pets to the children they never had and lived contented. Today, animal companions are highly valued for therapy and protection. In every case, the human involved relates the animal to some source of trust and faith and safely brings it into his or her comfort zone.

So, we like animals because we subconsciously find in them resemblances with people we know and love and we do so to relate to them so as to trust them and feel safe in their presence.

Then, it should follow logically that we hate animals when we cannot find any resemblance between them and our known persons because we do not want to relate to them since we do not feel secure in their presence.

So, does our need to feel safe trigger our acceptance of some animals and abhorrence of others?

Well, that is my argument.

Manjishtha                                                                                                                                             Dated: 13.10.2010


[1] and [3] The Statesman daily of 13.10.2010

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthrozoology

Additional information:

1. http://www.anthrozoology.org/

2. http://paws.wcu.edu/herzog/

3. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/animals-and-us


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