Wednesday, October 19, 2011


Anthropomorphism is defined by as "ascribing human form or attributes to a being or thing not human..."

Being anthropomorphic with animals can be a good thing or a bad thing. For instance, when I'm working with children I try to encourage them to think in anthropomorphic terms with animals because it can help them develop empathy and respect in how they treat all living creatures. If you can put yourself in a pets place it's easier to understand how frightening it might be to have a stranger walk up to you and immediately start petting. Often times I'll ask kids if they like to be bothered when they're trying to eat dinner or if they're trying to sleep. When they tell me no, I ask them to consider that pets also don't like to be bothered.

On the other hand being anthropomorphic can interfer with being able to provide an animal's needs. I remember years ago I had rats that I kept in my office as education pets. When I first got them one of our very kindhearted volunteers bought me a nightlight to keep in the office so the rats weren't in the pitch dark during the evening and on weekends. While this is something that most humans would appreciate, rats are nocturnal. Wild rats rarely see the light of day, and are most active at night when they have the cover of darkness.

Last week I went to San Diego for the annual Association of Pet Dog Trainers conference. I went a few days early and was able to visit the San Diego Zoo Safari Park which is renowned for keeping their animals in huge open enclosures with as natural a setting as possible. Unlike most zoos, the Zoo Safari park allows many of it's animals to roam over many acres. While I was there I was lucky enough to be able to see the baby elephant that was born only 2 weeks prior.

One of the opening speakers at the conference was Jeff Andrews -- elephant manager for the San Diego Zoo and the Zoo Safari Park. One part of his presentation - with video, was about elephants and how they care for new born calves. After an elephant calf is born the mother elephant tries to get the amniotic sac off the baby and get it to it's feet as soon as possible. This would be important in the wild to prevent predators for getting to immobilized calves.

The process is a bit hard to watch. Mom elephant bellows and roars and uses her feet and tusks to try and get the sac off. She continues after the sac is gone in an effort to get her baby to it's feet. It looks violent and from our standpoint appears that her baby will be hurt and killed as this is going on.

Jeff Andrews told us that in the past many zoos chain their elephants when they're giving birth because the process does look so vicious and the zoo keepers were afraid that the baby would be seriously hurt and killed -- which at times can happen. However -- this is how elephants give birth in the wild, and the Zoo Safari Park prefers to be as hands off as possible and let nature take it's course.

Anthropomorphism in this case got in the way of letting mother elephants follow their instincts. And since elephants have been giving birth for thousands of years without dying out as a species, who are we to say they're doing it wrong?

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