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. 



  1. So powerful, Katrina. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Once again, a powerful and moving piece. It came along at a time when I too was dealing with that damn "anthropomorphize" word. Recently, I was discussing the pain and grief that a mother cow feels when her baby is taken away in the dairy industry with some friends at a party. (Hmmm.....don't I sound fun at a party) A very learned anthropologist acquaintance overheard me and said "You vegans.....always anthropomorphizing." I had no comeback for him......those always seem to come to me hours later when I am alone in the car and it is too late! Because you so graciously shared your deeply personal experience, I will now be able to tell your story when I hear that damn word again. Thank you.

    1. Hi Edward! I totally relate to you on the party-comeback comment. I have that happen many times. The good news is that after you reflect on it later in your car, you'll be that much more informed and ready to debate when the topic comes back. (which it does). I'm flattered that you'll use this story. :)

  3. Thank you for sharing your personal struggles--I'm sorry you've had to go through all of that. It's mind boggling to me that people think animals don't have the same feelings we do, although I can bet these people think differently when it comes to their dog or cat. Farm animals are NO DIFFERENT. Thanks for this powerful and insightful post. (Just another reason I nominated you for the One Lovely Blog Award)! http://epicureanvegan.com/2012/06/26/one-lovely-blog-award/

    1. Wow! Thank you so much for the nomination! (I love this idea of nominating other blogs and sharing seven random facts about oneself.) I really appreciate the shout-out. :) Made my day!

  4. Thank you for sharing your very personal story and giving great insight on just how emotional animals really are. I know first hand my kitties have emotions; it's written all over Yvaine's face how scared and stressed she is when she goes to the vet and in how Loki purrs and needles us at bedtime. The great thing about animal emotions is that they are never contrived. You never have to wonder if a cow munching grass in a pasture is happy, you can just see it in his face. Most humans will never be able to achieve that level of emotional freedom. If anything the definition should be the other way around; humans are constantly trying to project the pure emotions of animals onto ourselves.

    1. What a fascinating view. You're right -- animals emotions aren't contrived, are they? And I love your last sentence: "humans are constantly trying to project the pure emotions of animals onto ourselves." Beautiful! (And GREAT cat names, by the way!)