Anthropomorphism. It’s a Not Bad Thing.

This week I saw a comment on a great story about a mustang that credited the horse and rider’s success, but called the writing sentimental. I had to laugh; if she thought that story was sentimental, she’d hate my writing.  Then I got a bit defensive. Her use of the word sentimental felt like a rub–kind of like calling a capable woman a girl. It’s dismissive of something that I feel strongly about. And it’s wrong.

There’s a less diminutive word for sentimental. It’s that word so hard to remember or pronounce–anthropomorphism, meaning attributing human traits, emotions, and intentions to non-human entities. In other words, calling yourself a Horse Mom or a Dog Dad.

The Wikipedia page gives a great short history. Modern psychologists generally characterize anthropomorphism as a cognitive bias, or a thought process people use to make generalizations about other humans or animals. It’s a knowledge acquired when we’re young, from our first fairy tales with a Big Bad Wolf, to every Looney Tunes rabbit, duck, or (Porky) pig. After that, every moment of Walt Disney, along with Alice in Wonderland, Dr. Doolittle, Animal Farm, and Kipling’s Jungle Book. It’s embedded in our minds since birth, if not sooner. It’s always been natural to use animals as parables for human life. Does that make it wrong?

“Anthropomorphism is considered to be an innate tendency of human psychology.” –Wiki

The problem with demeaning anthropomorphic perceptions is that it’s also the only way humans have to perceive things. Our only option is to look though the lenses of our human experience. When you think of it that way, anthropomorphism is hard to deny. Can we perceive the world as if we were a fish? Or as if we were God? Being human is the only experience we know; it’s honest.

And we’re in excellent company. Again, from Wikipedia:

The study of great apes in their own environment and in captivity has changed attitudes to anthropomorphism. In the 1960s the three so-called “Leakey’s Angels”, Jane Goodall studying chimpanzees, Dian Fossey studying gorillas and Biruté Galdikas studying orangutans, were all accused of “that worst of ethological sins – anthropomorphism”. The charge was brought about by their descriptions of the great apes in the field; it is now more widely accepted that empathy has an important part to play in research.

De Waal, whose research centers on primate social behavior, has written: “To endow animals with human emotions has long been a scientific taboo. But if we do not, we risk missing something fundamental, about both animals and us.”

Nah, nah, nah-nah-nah. Because balanced perception involves intellect, but also intuition. The combination of heart and mind is always where truth lives. What’s un-natural is treating feelings and instincts as cold, dead facts.

And yes, it’s also noted that anthropomorphism can function as a strategy to cope with loneliness when other human connections are not available. Well, I do acknowledge guilt here. But being lonely isn’t a crime, and the reason so many of us do it, is that it works. As stated in the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness animals do have emotions “not unlike humans.” It’s an affirmation; brain science has proved what most animal people have known forever, but it’s still important information for folks who use horses like dirt bikes.

Disclaimer:  Yes, some people go over the edge; there are saccharine, dewy-eyed, gushy people who cling desperately to an animal as dysfunctionally as a miser clings to his pennies.  But again, rather than dismiss the sentiment, in a way it’s a backhanded acknowledgment that it works as a coping mechanism. Still there is a difference between dressing up all the cats in doll clothes and making them sit at the dinner table and recognizing there is a sentient mind inside that Momma cat as she cares for her kittens.

Because we are all created of the same stardust, we have similarities with animals and we can form relationships and communicate with them. Some species more than others, but at this point no one denies the intelligence of birds, dolphins, and the domestic animals who joined us in our homes centuries ago.

It isn’t just that animals have human characteristics and behaviors that we recognize; humans have animal characteristics and behaviors that animals recognize, as well. Anthropomorphic behaviors work both directions. Doesn’t it seem like labradors are especially sentimental about humans? Especially really short humans, still too young to be cynical?

In my world, the term natural horsemanship has fallen on hard times. I always defined the term as communicating in horse language, learned by watching and listening. Then a bunch of men with sticks hit too many horses in the face and shook too many white bags. Maybe it was me that got desensitized, but I lost faith in that term as I’ve seen cold-hearted domination lower the level of communication with horses, in the same way it does between humans. Intimidation will never encourage the best answer.

But in spite of our shortcomings, I have not lost faith that communication between species is possible to do in an affirmative way. Call me an anthropomorphoristic idiot if you can pronounce it, but I will always believe that horses invite us. Is it possible that horses anthropomorphize, too, and see humans in their own reflection? Is it possible that I could become a Boss Mare in the best sense of their definition? It’s a lofty goal.

My horses and I speak different languages but we have found a common ground. I can’t say that my horses love me; I can’t claim that human thing that isn’t equine. But we do share a deep respect for each other, and a volunteered willingness to be together that can feel just like affection. Still, the hearts and flowers are my issue–chronically human as I am. I continue to aspire to that peaceful thing I witness when the herd stands together in the sun.

Go ahead, be dismissive of our so-called sentimentality, and then explain to me why some rider’s horse’s tuck their tails and pin their ears, while other horses dance with a pride and confidence that can lift human hearts. Explain why some humans, broken and belittled by their own species, find undeniable comfort and healing in the company of animals.

And when it comes to working with horses, I am more and more certain that whatever it is we think we’re training is not a fraction as important as the attitude we maintain in our minds, as well as our hearts.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

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Comment by Anna Blake on November 20, 2015 at 11:35am

Could be...  the height thing matters to dogs. He has a point.

Comment by Jackie Cochran on November 20, 2015 at 11:32am

My son thinks that horses think of us more as equals because our heads are at horse height, that when they see us they see the front of us like they see a horse head on.  We, horse and human, can look eye to eye when we just stand there. 

That may be why horse's see some people as superior, or equal, rather than as pets, like their friendly dogs, cats and goats. 

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