Animal Advocacy and the Charge of Anthropomorphism
An Animal Rights Article from


Frauke Albersmeier, CCA Catholic Concern for Animals
March 2017

It makes a difference whether we explain that non-human animals ‘share’ so many of our ‘human feelings’ or whether we avoid the implication that some type of capacity or emotion is primarily a ‘human’ one. Avoiding talk of ‘human’ traits is a way of battling anti-animal prejudice, that is, a way of battling speciesism.

When philosophers, biologists or psychologists argue about ‘anthropomorphism’ they sometimes explicitly distance themselves from one very obvious way of understanding this concept: they do not want to discuss ‘anthropomorphic’ depictions of animals, that is, depictions that show non-humans wearing clothes or make-up, four-legged animals walking on two feet, or animals talking in human languages – as they are shown in animated movies, commercials or children’s books. We are familiar with these ways of portraying non-human animals, and we typically find it easy to identify them as non-realistic. We can easily spot the specifically human characteristics that have been incorporated, like Paddington Bear’s fluent English, his suitcase, and duffle coat.

‘Anthropomorphism’ derives from Greek anthropos – ‘human’, and morphe – ‘form’. Therefore, the link to human-like depictions of animals seems pretty straightforward. Showing animals in an ‘anthropomorphic’ way is to show them as being of ‘human form’.

Behavioural anthropomorphism

However, anthropomorphism can also denote a mode of representing non-human animals that has less to do with physical appearance. It might refer to a way of describing non-human animals, their behaviour, and inner lives in terms that actually only apply to humans. Since scientists have become more open towards recognising similarities between animals and humans, as far as their emotional and cognitive capacities are concerned, there has been disagreement about how these similarities might actually be established and described. In this context, the charge of anthropomorphism is directed against those who are inclined to see animals’ behaviour as driven by similar motives as humans’ – for example, to see a sense of ‘fairness’ at work, when animals reject unequal ‘rewards’ in behavioural experiments. Those who put forward the charge of anthropomorphism usually want to press a supposedly ‘easier’ way of accounting for the animals’ behaviour and think we should be very careful with applying ‘human’ terms to animals’ behavioural and mental capacities.

cow and calf

Anthropomorphism in animal advocacy?

Although the debate about anthropomorphism is, at first, an academic one, it does seem to have some relevance for animal advocates, too. Animal advocates might at times find themselves faced with a kind of criticism similar to the charge of anthropomorphism.

One important part of animal advocacy is usually to raise empathy for the animals affected by a harmful practice. Therefore, one will want to show animals as experiencing feelings that are meaningful to humans. An obvious counterstrategy for those who want to keep using animals the way they have always done, is to claim that those descriptions are not apt, but present animals as humans, when they actually differ from humans in important ways. Animal rights activists might, for instance, want to draw attention to the problems involved with practices in the dairy industry. They might write and talk about the bond between a mother cow and her calf and the emotional distress the separation of the two causes. They might also frame this in terms of ‘motherly love’. Defenders of the practice in question might claim that this description is just inadequate. They might say, ‘the mother-child-relationship in cows is importantly different from the mother-child-relationship in humans’; ‘talk of motherly love is misleading, it is a way of making us think of cows more as humans than they actually are’; ‘you are distorting people’s view of cows for your purposes’, and so forth. That is to say, an easy way to undermine animal advocates’ empathetic descriptions of animals is to apply a charge of anthropomorphism.

In contrast, writer and animal rights advocate Joan Dunayer classifies the interpretation of ‘motherly love’ as mere ‘maternal instinct’ as an instance of speciesist language. On her account, language might be a symptom, as well as a cause, of speciesism – ‘the failure to accord nonhuman animals equal consideration or respect’ (Dunayer, 2001, p.1), or, in Richard Ryder’s original definition, ‘the widespread discrimination that is practised by man against the other species’, a form of prejudice ‘based upon appearances’ (Ryder, 1975, p.16). Dunayer argues that speaking of ‘maternal instincts’ rather than ‘motherly love’ with respect to the emotional responses of cows to having their calves taken from them, serves to downplay the animals’ suffering, since ‘instinct implies rote behaviour devoid of feeling’ (Dunayer, p. 29).

But there are cases where refraining from talk of ‘motherly love’ would not count as speciesist, as can be illustrated by the following example. The selling of exotic animals such as reptiles, for them to be kept as pets, has come under a lot of criticism in recent years. Even people who do not, in principle, oppose treating animals as commodities are critical of the way exotic animals are caught, ‘stored’ and handled by traders, and often thoughtlessly purchased by humans who are not prepared to properly care for these animals. However, given everything that could be called abusive about the way reptiles are treated in the exotic pet trade, not mentioning ‘frustration of motherly feelings’ would not be speciesist, since reptiles typically do not care for their offspring in a way that warrants assuming they have such feelings. But then: would it be anthropomorphic if one did talk of motherly love with respect to reptiles?

Philosopher John Andrew Fisher claims that ‘what wouldn‘t be anthropomorphism concerning a chimp might be concerning a worm’ (Fisher, 1995, 6). With respect to the above example, this might read, ‘what wouldn‘t be anthropomorphism concerning a cow might be concerning a snake’. But I think there is reason to disagree. Now, talk of ‘motherly love’ with respect to reptiles might be inapt – but that doesn’t make it ‘anthropomorphic’, even though the concept of motherly love is applicable to humans and familiar to us by virtue of being human.

Because once it is established that other animals have motherly feelings, too – and actually: unless it is warranted to assume that no other animals have them – what sense does it make to think of these feelings as particularly ‘human’ ones? In saying that someone unduly ‘humanises’ animals or portrays them in an ‘anthropomorphic’ way, one is saying much more than that this portrayal is unrealistic, and, importantly, much more than what should be said. This might look like a minor and technical point, and indeed, I would not want to suggest that there are no more important things to worry about when it comes to our way of thinking about and treating animals. But I think that being precise about what counts as a misrepresentation of animals – and what kind of misrepresentation – does have some role to play in the way we argue for a fairer and better relationship between humans and non-humans. Before returning to this point we should take into account some of the ways that have been put forward to deal with the charge of anthropomorphism.

Real problems, misleading words

Some scholars have suggested that the way to address this charge is to distinguish between helpful and harmful versions of ‘anthropomorphism’. Frans de Waal, for instance, whose research on the sense of fairness in nonhuman primates challenges the idea that humans are the only moral animals, proposed the notion of ‘heuristic anthropomorphism’ (de Waal, 1999); others have suggested ‘critical anthropomorphism’ (Burghardt, 1990). In contrast to ‘naïve anthropomorphism’, these ways of describing animals in human terms and ascribing to them inner states that we are familiar with in ourselves, involve caution and awareness of possible differences between species. De Waal and others have also claimed that we should find a name for the counterpart of the mistake that has traditionally been called anthropomorphism. According to de Waal, we should call the blindness for the existence of ‘human’ traits in nonhuman animals ‘anthropodenial’ (de Waal, 1999).

The insight behind these differentiations is that there is a real danger of misinterpreting animals when we think of them as similar to us without knowing the extent of the actual differences, but that it is also not an option to avoid applying all sorts of presumably ‘human’ concepts – since they might actually be applicable! These scholars want to be able to ascribe to animals a feeling of motherly love, a capacity for joy, or a sense of fairness, but they also want to be careful about particular interpretations.

What is problematic about this, I think, is that by sticking with the term ‘anthropomorphism’ they mark the traits and capacities they are willing to ascribe to non-human animals as, in some way, typically ‘human’. ‘Anthropos’ refers to ‘humans’ – but as soon as we give up the idea that the trait in question is exclusively human and begin to recognise it in other animals, it is hard to see why we should call it a ‘human’ trait at all anymore. It might just as well be a ‘primate’ or ‘mammalian’ trait (see also Keeley, 2004). It does not seem to make sense to claim that one is keeping an open mind about the extent to which humans and non-human animals actually are alike and in what ways they differ, and at the same time to label all kinds of properties ‘human’, just because they are familiar from the human case.

When there is a controversy about whether some animal is capable of ‘motherly love’ (and therefore harmed by being separated from her child), the issue is not, whether describing her as feeling a mother’s love would be ‘anthropomorphic’, unless we think that this feeling is actually either exclusively human or that humans have some kind of special claim to it. But what should warrant such a claim? Once we acknowledge that animals other than humans feel love for their children, any misattribution of this feeling to an animal that actually does not feel it, is not ‘anthropomorphic’ anymore. This misinterpretation would have to be specified differently. Philosopher Kristin Andrews has pointed out that this holds not only once we have acknowledged a trait in other animals, but that we should actually abstain from claiming any trait to be exclusively human at all, lest we give in to prejudice (Andrews, 2011).

When ‘tickling’ equals ‘torture’

The dangers of misinterpretation are real, and they often directly affect animal welfare. For example, in 2015, animal welfare activists reacted to a recent type of hit videos on the internet, that showed slow loris, small nocturnal primates, being ‘tickled’.

slow loris

Viewers had predominantly thought that the animals enjoyed the ‘tickling’, because they reacted by raising their arms, holding perfectly still otherwise. Tragically, activists explained, this reaction actually shows that the slow loris are terrified and try to prepare for their particular way of self-defense: licking a venom from a gland on their elbow in order to bight a predator (which is why slow loris get their teeth removed, in painful ways, before they are sold as pets. The video: Tickling slow loris' animal torture can be found on YouTube:

Obviously, these kinds of misinterpretation can be very harmful to animals. In this case, the little primates’ body language was completely misread, probably in analogy to dogs, far more familiar pets, who might stretch their forelegs when enjoying a belly rub. This tragic misunderstanding also shows that our mistakes about animals’ inner lives are not always ‘anthropomorphic’, just because they involve concepts that are applicable to humans (in this case enjoying being tickled).

The misrepresentation of the slow loris is probably rather ‘caninomorphic’ or ‘dog-like’. It just goes to show that failing to recognize an animal’s actual way of experiencing a situation is not distinctive of economically motivated animal abuse, but can also be a tragic effect of human-dominated interaction that seems benign on the surface.

Battling anti-animal prejudice

Of course, in cases like this, the problem is not that we might classify the misunderstanding as anthropomorphism. The problem is the misunderstanding itself and the way these animals are treated in order to end up as misunderstood pets.

But then, what’s the significance of the philosophical debate about interpretations of animal behaviour to animal advocacy? Given that animal advocates might sometimes find themselves faced with the charge to be ‘anthropomorphising’ or ‘humanising’ non-human animals, that is, to be attributing ‘human’ traits to them, it seems that one important way to counter this charge is to distinguish between two distinct assumptions it involves: first of all, the charge of anthropomorphism presumes that the individual attribution at hand is inapt, that the way some animal has been represented is wrong; secondly, it presumes that the description of that individual animal is wrong by virtue of involving some ‘human’ attribute. Animal advocates should not forget to tackle this second premise. The idea that we can talk legitimately of ‘human’ attributes is a prejudice against non-human animals. This kind of prejudice has been invoked in the justification of cruelty towards animals for ages and still needs to be challenged.

It makes a difference whether we explain that non-human animals ‘share’ so many of our ‘human feelings’ or whether we avoid the implication that some type of capacity or emotion is primarily a ‘human’ one. Avoiding talk of ‘human’ traits is a way of battling anti-animal prejudice, that is, a way of battling speciesism.


  • Andrews, K. (2011) “Beyond Anthropomorphism: Attributing Psychological Properties to Animals”, in: Tom Beauchamp & Raymond G. Frey (eds.): The Oxford Handbook of Animal Ethics, Oxford University Press, pp. 469-494.
  • Burghardt, G. M. (1990) “Animal suffering, critical anthropomorphism, and reproductive rights”, in: Behavioral and Brain Sciences 13 (1), pp. 14-15.
  • de Waal, F. B. M. (1999) “Anthropomorphism and Anthropodenial. Consistency in Our Thinking about Humans and Other Animals”, in: Philosophical Topics 27, p. 255–280.
  • Dunayer, J. (2001) Animal Equality. Language and Liberation. Derwood: Ryce Publishing.
  • Fisher, J. A. (1991) “Disambiguating Anthropomorphism: An interdisciplinary review”, in: Perspectives in Ethology 9, 49-85.
  • Keeley, B. L. (2004) “Anthropomorphism, primatomorphism, mammalomorphism: understanding crossspecies comparisons”, in: Biology and Philosophy 19, pp. 521–540.
  • Ryder, R. (1975) Victims of Science. The use of animals in research. London: Davis-Poynter.

Frauke Albersmeier is a PhD student of philosophy and a research fellow at Heinrich Heine University Dusseldorf, where she is working on a dissertation project on the concept of moral progress. She is a co-founder and board member of Achtung für Tiere e.V., a non-profit organisation based in Guetersloh, Germany, which combines lifelong care for rescued animals with education programs addressing animal welfare and animal rights issues.

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