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As Happy as a Pig in Lit? The Dangers of Anthropomorphism in Children's Literature

30/09/2014 17:08 BST | Updated 30/11/2014 10:59 GMT

Trust us, we wish animals could talk more than most people.

As animal lovers and aspiring Doctor Dolittles, we can see the appeal of an anthropomorphic animal kingdom in children's literature. What child isn't going to be fascinated by a talking pig? It's magical, after all. It's also a tried and tested way of selling lots of copies. We can see the appeal, but we can also see the potential pitfalls.

Having a hang-up about the use of anthropomorphism in children's literature is nothing new. But as it's World Vegetarian Day on 1 October, it would seem like a good time to challenge anthropomorphism on the grounds of its impact on animal welfare, particularly for those classified as farm or food animals.

The traditional argument in support of anthropomorphism is that such stories help to increase a child's understanding and empathy for animals.

But.

If humanised portrayals increase a child's empathy for animals - and such portrayals are ubiquitous across children's books, cartoons, films and toys - why do those with a positive attitude towards animals occupy such a marginalised position in society? If we are all exposed to the same anthropomorphic material, more or less, why do so few genuinely care about animal welfare? After all, only 2% of the UK population are vegetarians. Most people wear leather. SeaWorld is still in business.

So.

Why do we treat our best friends from childhood like our worst enemies in adulthood? What's going wrong?

Part of the problem is that many people don't think there is a problem with the way animals are treated. Some maintain that non-human animals have no other function than to feed, entertain and serve human animals. Whereas others are genuinely (or wilfully) ignorant of the appalling conditions upheld in the food industry, believing in the bucolic 'family farm' fairy-tale that children's literature has assisted clever marketing in perpetuating.

The other part of the problem is that anthropomorphism does something very strange to characters in children's books. (Yes, even stranger than a pig doing somersaults and vocalising his thoughts on the nature of nothingness - see Charlotte's Web.) Anthropomorphism has the ability to make animals disappear. The real magic of animals is lost beneath a plethora of banal human characteristics. And how can you appreciate an animal when the animal isn't there?

Much of anthropomorphic children's literature is also guilty of bestowing immortality upon its farm animal characters. And I don't mean the "Welcome to the Literary Canon Annual Dinner, please take your seat between Peter Rabbit and Winnie-the-Pooh" kind of immortality. I mean that pigs do many things in children's literature that they don't do in real life: talk, wear clothes, philosophise. But the most unrealistic of all is that they survive.

SPOILER ALERT!!!

Here are some facts about pigs your childhood reading may have overlooked:

• Pigs on farms do not last very long.

• They are not kept as pets.

• If they were given names, they would recognise and respond to them.

• Pigs are more intelligent than dogs, and they wag their tails when happy.

• Pigs dream and can see in colour.

• They are sociable and prone to powerful emotions.

• Pigs are similar in size to humans.

• Common pig-farming practices include ear notching, tail docking, tooth extraction and castration. Often without anaesthetic.

• Every pig is an individual.

It is this last point that anthropomorphism complicates the most. In children's books such as Charlotte's Web and The Sheep-Pig, not every pig is an individual, only the protagonists. The billion or so offstage pigs remain anonymous, whilst the superiority of the pig protagonist paradoxically reinforces the stereotype of all other pigs being identically greedy, slovenly and stupid.

We are not suggesting that all animal narratives should graduate from the farrowing crate to the factory farm to the slaughterhouse. These are miserable, unnatural places, and they have no place in children's literature. They have no place at all.

But what we are advocating is a more accurate portrayal of animals in children's literature: portrayals like The Unbelievable Top Secret Diary of Pig that celebrate the inherent magic of animals, rather than ventriloquizing and trivialising them.

After all, animals can do some amazing things, and not one of them involves a barbecue.

B.J. Epstein is a senior lecturer in literature and public engagement at the University of East Anglia

Mitch Johnson is a writer and vegan in Norwich