Newsletter - Animal Writes sm
31 October 1999 Issue

By Karen Dawn, [email protected]

Anthropomorphism - The practice of attributing human emotions to other animals. Anyone who has done much reading on animal rights has come across this term. It has been used throughout history as an anti-animal rights argument. Scientists have suggested that animals do not feel emotion and that humans project their own emotions on to animals. Taken to an extreme, this has been used to justify extraordinary abuse. The renowned 17th century philosopher, Descartes, held that dogs do not even feel physical pain. He held that their howling in what seemed like agony was only instinctive noise-letting. Thus he condoned operations on fully conscious dogs, their limbs nailed to tabletops. He said that anyone who complained was indulging in anthropomorphism.

We evolved from animals. It is unlikely that emotions emerged suddenly at some point in the evolutionary chain. Thankfully, there is now a huge body of work documenting animal emotion. Books such as When Elephants Weep, by Susan McCarthy and Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, discuss the subject in thorough, very touching detail. Of course, anyone who has ever been greeted by their dog after being away for the day, does not need a book to convince them that animals have emotions. However, it is always useful for an activist to be thoroughly armed with more than personal anecdotal evidence. Thus I highly recommend reading the above-mentioned book or at least giving it a perusal.

I mention arming ourselves with information. Let us make sure that we never arm our opponents. Throughout history, the most consistent point used against animals, has been that the fight for their rights is based on anthropomorphism. We know that animals have the need and right to live cage-free, without torture -- and most fundamentally, the right to live. We weaken crucial arguments and make light of their rights when we pollute our arguments with true anthropomorphism.

A recent news report stated that 60 million Americans give pets a special meal on the pet's birthday. Yet only 10-20 million Americans are vegetarian. This statistic alone is enough to demonstrate the lack of correlation between concern for animal rights and the celebration of an animal's birthday. Humans invented the calendar and thus the birthday celebration. To suggest that this celebration is important to an animal is to indulge in the anthropomorphism of which animal rights activists are often accused.

I recently read a beautiful piece about a laboratory monkey, in which this mistake was made. I believe that the suggestion that the monkey was concerned about her birthday took an otherwise strong piece and opened it up for ridicule. Ridicule is a vehement weapon, one that we must not hand our opponents. Thus I am writing to suggest that we keep our arguments strong and intelligent, in the style of our mentors such as Peter Singer and Ingrid Newkirk. To overindulge in emotionalism and particularly in true anthropomorphism is to undermine their work and ours.

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