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Is Anthropomorphism Bad For Wildlife Conservation?

11/01/2016 09:59 GMT | Updated 06/01/2017 10:12 GMT

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"The world is too PC!" We've all heard that one before. Like health and safety it was meant to make us all - well - safer; but for political correctness, health and safety, and just about anything really, there's always people who take it too far. In the case of anthropomorphising, we're not going to be the people to go too far and ban it outright, but it's important to know it can be harmful.

Let's start off slow: what is it? Anthropomorphism is the attribution of a human characteristic to something non-human. In this article we're focusing on anthropomorphism and animals.

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Have you ever seen a chimpanzee smile? Have you seen a hyena give a menacing look? A rabbit check the time in horror, realise it's late, put its pocket-watch back in its waistcoat, and run down a rabbit hole to a magical land? Some of these are more likely to be seen than others, but we've probably all seen them on TV or in books at some point.

The smile is perhaps the most prominent case of anthropomorphising. For different animals it means different things. Sometimes happiness, sometimes fear. The important thing is to know when an animal is in distress, and when it's harmless fun. Even if it's not actually smiling, it may not always be a bad thing to see ourselves in animals. Such projections help build empathy and incentivise their protection.

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Apparently a biologist actually sued Disney for defamation of character on behalf of hyenas after they received the Disney villain treatment and where made out to be stupid, evil and a risk to the sovereignty of any nation because of their treasonous natures. Whether or not the truth of this law suit is verifiable, there is a real problem here that animal lovers need to be mindful of. Disney is not the only one conducting (highly entertaining) character assassination of hyenas; it's common in many cultures for hyenas to be portrayed as treacherous and stupid, which spills over into mistreatment. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature claims the persecution of hyenas based on an anthropomorphised persona is a considerable threat to the species. Do they deserve it? As it turns out hyena's have a unique immune system of great scientific interest and may be of considerable value to us in the future. We're not saying you should go out and pet one, but you can sleep safely knowing they're not planning to overthrow the monarchy. If the world doesn't start seeing the hyena positively, rather than a humanised Disney style villain with character traits animals can't even have, then we could lose something of great instrumental and intrinsic value.

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Think of the bumblebees, which for a long time were annoying things that could sting you and were firmly on many people's ok-to-squash list. Now it turns out they are one of the most important species for pollination and our very existence depends on them. Suddenly the sting or the buzzing around your coke can looks like something you might be able to put up with. Just remember the animal is not being mean deliberately, so let's not punish animals for our own species' attributes mirrored through them.

The lives of all animals on Earth are in our hands, so we have to do their PR for them. A bad public image is the difference between life and death for some animals, so by all means enjoy this smiley dog, but just be mindful of how much an animal relies on a reputation it doesn't know it has.

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By Ben Hatton - Online Journalism Intern

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