Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Anthropomorphize. Hard to say, hard to swallow.

Have you ever said this word? Anthropomorphize. It takes some practice to say it correctly, and I still stumble over it.

I looked up anthropomorphize in dictionary.com and it read as follows: "to ascribe human form or attributes to (an animal, plant, material object, etc)"

Realizing that it's been forever since I've looked anything up in my beautiful hold-it-in-your-hands dictionary, I thought I'd check that too. The definition there was slightly more poetic. "To ascribe human characteristics to things not human."

Now in terms of a book like, say, Peter Rabbit, where the little rabbits wear coats, have tea and jam, and get tucked into bed -- Yes, I think we can all agree that those scenarios are solid examples of anthropomorphization. Wearing clothes and having tea are, as far as I know, uniquely human habits. 

But that's not when I hear that word used. 

Rather, it's when a person remarks that a [insert animal species here] looks guilty, delighted, loving, or depressed,  that they are often gently reminded not to anthropomorphize. I've seen plenty of footage of cows giving birth to their babies, only to have them taken away either immediately or 24 hours after birth. Both animals are panicked and in pain. They only want to be together. And yet I've been told, "Well that's really anthropomorphizing. They're not human, you know. It's just instinct."

I find this kind of comment stunning and telling.

First, we humans are animals. This is a fact to which our species seems very resistant. We want to believe we're separate. Better. Smarter. Not animals. Everything is here for us. And non-human animals, for many people, are the "others" who are here to serve us in some capacity. But for anyone who has a pet or who watches Animal Planet, our behaviors are not so different from those "others."

And building on that, we seem to think we have the monopoly on emotions. Fear, love, pride, grief, jealousy. All human emotions, some say. When an animal grieves the death of another animal, we often caution each other not to project human emotions onto animals. This is where I want to do a Biff and yell, "Hello? Hello? Anybody home? Think McFly, think! We ARE animals. We all experience feelings."

But as I said, it's very telling when a person explains away an animal's emotions as not being true "human emotions," but pure instinct, nothing more. Nothing we should read too much into. To me, a person who makes these claims wants to distance themselves from the thought that non-human animals experience what we experience. And while frustration at traffic might not be an emotion a non-human animal gets rooted in, the bliss of sitting in the sunshine is. Fear of being hurt is. Love for their babies is. Misery and sadness is. And if non-human animals experience what we human animals experience? Well that's just too uncomfortable to contemplate, isn't it?

There's a part of my past that I haven't shared until now because it hasn't really crossed paths with the topics at hand. But it seems appropriate here. Almost five years ago, right after the most wonderful wedding in the history of the world  -- I'm clearly biased --  I got pregnant. I was over the moon. Ryan and I both were. Every passing week, I knew our baby was getting bigger and stronger. I dreamed about meeting her. (I always knew it was a girl.) Her heartbeat was strong. We began playing with names. My sister-in-law gave me a pair of baby socks that I put in my nightstand. We talked to our baby at night and in the morning, telling her how excited we were to have her with us. Everything was perfect.

And then, almost into my second trimester, during a routine exam, we found out that she was gone. It was later explained that she had implanted in a section of the upper uterus that had a limited blood supply. Regardless of the reason, though, the grief was pretty overwhelming. And it was made worse by some rare and unreal complications. (You probably wouldn't believe me if I explained it to you. The team of specialists were mystified by how strange it all was.) Those complications spanned from our miscarriage in October right through the following April. During this time, I had to have what was essentially low-grade chemo. When that didn't work, I had two surgeries to get me back to normal. And despite being in good baby-making shape again, I never conceived. (Which is a whole other topic.)

I can't even begin to explain to you how awful this period was. Did my fluctuating hormones have anything to do with how hard it was to accept and endure? Most likely. Was my sadness just due to motherly "instinct"? Probably. But knowing it was "just animal instinct" to mourn my baby didn't make it any easier. Everything I felt was real. And though I feel as healed as one can be, those tiny socks remain in my sock drawer, almost five years later. I don't think I'll ever be able to part with them.  

When I hear people explain away the dairy industry; explain away the cows being inseminated in "rape racks" -- I'm not joking. That's what some people in the industry call it;  explain away babies being taken from their mothers by force in order to save the milk for human consumption; explain the mothers' heartbreak as "just instinct," I feel angry. Because it may just be instinct and it may just be hormones, but it doesn't make it any less real or painful to them or to any other animal in the animal agriculture industry.

This is the happy ending so many dairy cows don't get to experience. Posted with permission from The Gentle Barn.

Anthropomorphization. Hard to spell. Hard to say. And really hard to swallow. Because it's a word that tries in vain to disguise our discomfort at putting non-human animals through things we'd never want to experience in a million years.