Anthropomorphism

Mar 30, 2020

When you hear the name Samson, what springs to mind – possibly a religious story, or maybe the name of a larger-than-life animal? The Masked Biologist says all of the above, and explores the humanization of animals in this week’s Wildlife Matters.

When you hear the name Samson, you probably think of strength. It may be related to the religious story from the Bible, where he is described as the strongest man who ever lived, and he died by pulling down an entire building on top of himself and his enemies. Because of this image of unparalleled strength, this name was occasionally assigned to some of the biggest and strongest of the animals at least in the 20th century US. Growing up in Wisconsin in the 70s and 80s, I knew about Samson the gorilla, the resident celebrity at the Milwaukee Zoo. Samson came to Milwaukee in 1950, and although he battled some illnesses as a youngster, he grew to become such a large ape that his peak weight of 652 pounds earned him a place in the Guinness book of Animal Facts and Feats. Unfortunately, Samson died of a heart attack in 1981, when I was 10. The entire state went into mourning, and a monument was put in place that remains to this day.

Another Samson that made the news in the mid-90s was a little farther away, but his death rocked the country. This Samson was a local icon in Estes Park, a large mature bull elk who was unusually conditioned to being around people. Samson weighed over a thousand pounds, and his antlers were what we call 7x9, meaning he had seven points on one side and nine points on the other.  He was a magnificent animal, a local media star, and popular with residents and visitors alike. Unfortunately, he was shot by a poacher in front of the YMCA in November 1995. His untimely and illegal killing captured the attention of the national media. The poacher received a very harsh penalty, and in memorial a humongous bronze statue was erected in the town. I lived in Colorado during this time, and attending Colorado State University so it hit close to home. This senseless killing left a lasting impact on the local community that is still tangible 25 years later.

Did you notice as I went through these two brief narratives, I referred to these animals in relatively human terms? I used personal pronouns like he and his, and descriptions like youngster. Today more than ever, we increasingly anthropomorphize animals. It’s a big word that basically means assigning human attributes to non-human creatures.  I have been giving this a lot of thought since the recent publication of a massive study named “How anthropomorphism is changing the social context of modern wildlife conservation” whose lead author is Michael Manfredo, a professor from Colorado State University. In this study, surveys were sent out to almost 44,000 people across the United States by email and snail mail. The study showed that we as a country are increasingly mutualistic, meaning we assign animals similar values to humans, mutual beings rather than a commodity, expressing opinions such as “animals have emotions” and “animals have free will.”

This should come as no surprise. Since the end of WWII, we have not had to rely on wildlife for food and clothing. Animals became cartoon characters and movie stars, and were given human names and voices. Even when I was growing up, we saw not only Bugs Bunny outsmarting dimwitted hunter Elmer Fudd in cartoons, but related with Smokey Bear and Woodsy the Owl in preventing forest fires and stopping pollution. We watched Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, where Marlin Perkins and Jim Fowler brought animals into our living rooms every week in an unprecedented manner.

Another major change in the last century was the number of people going on to college over time. This study showed a correlation between an increase in education and income and the level of anthropomorphism in their values system.

It is important to acknowledge that humans have always had special bonds with animals, and this seems to be increasing over time. It presents opportunities to connect humans with wildlife conservation and natural resource management. The challenge it presents is how wildlife managers are supposed to manage nuisance wildlife, invasive species, and wildlife damage complaints as well as maintaining heritage activities like hunting and trapping. This is a new frontier emerging on the horizon of 21st century wildlife management.