Can humanizing animals help us save them?
By attributing human characteristics to animals — what's known as anthropomorphism — we're more likely to empathize with them, which can have both negative and positive effects on the species.
Wed, Jul 16, 2014 at 08:12 AM
Fuleco, Brazil's World Cup mascot. (Photo: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
What do Nemo, Simba, Smokey the Bear and Fuleco — the World Cup’s armadillo mascot — have in common?
They're all anthropomorphized characters, meaning they have human-like features, characteristics and emotions.
Also, whether intentional or not, all four of them play roles in conservation movements because we've ascribed human-like appearances and behaviors to them.
In short, the more "human" we perceive an animal to be, the more likely we are to relate to it and develop empathy.
Forging connections with animals
Researchers are studying how using the compassion that anthropomorphism evokes can create conservation campaigns that get people emotionally involved.
"Anthropomorphization of species is a common way for people to relate to other species, but as a conservation tool it is underused and is not being utilized as a way of effectively promoting the relationships between people and nature through conservation programs," said Diogo Verissimo, co-author of a 2013 study on anthropomorphized species.
Verissimo's research confirms that anthromorphism helps people connect with the animal world and where there's a sense of connection, they have a stronger commitment to that species' conservation.
In movies with characters like Nemo, Bambi and Simba, storytellers seek to make an emotional connection so the audience is invested in the story. Inspiring a desire to protect these animals is typically an unintended side effect.
But there are examples of conservation campaigns that seek to attract public attention and funding by creating an anthromorphized mascot.
One such example is the 2014 World Cup's mascot.
Fuleco, a Brazilian three-banded armadillo, is portrayed as very human-like, complete with smiling face and soccer jersey. He's meant to not only get people excited about the soccer, but also about the conservation of a vulnerable species that's threatened by habitat destruction.
International conservation organization Rare designed Armella, the Mangrove Flycatcher bird mascot that fronts its Ngarchelong Pride Campaign in Palau, to be an anthropomorphized version of the region's famous bird.
The Flycatcher whistles to signal rain and is an indicator of healthy forests, and Armella, who has large eyes and wears a hat, mimics the bird.
Anthroporphism isn't always good
Although humanized animals can evoke empathy for a species, there are downsides to anthropomorphizing them.
Developing a character or mascot that seems human while still retaining an animal's unique attributes is a tough task, and it can be especially difficult when that creature isn't an adorable mammal.
Critics have accused anthropomorphism of limiting conservation programs to mostly social species that we're likely to describe as cute.
"The world’s biodiversity is being beautified by selective conservation of attractive species, while the plight of the overwhelming majority of species is receiving limited attention," wrote ecologist Ernie Small in the journal Biodiversity.
And sometimes making an animal too relatable can have a negative effect on a species.
Following the success of the animated film "Finding Nemo," clownfish were in high demand and the species was devastated in areas like the Vanuatu archipelago in the South Pacific.
In 2003, the year of the film's release, about 200,000 fish and other marine creatures were exported from the country, and the government set up a committee to examine the threat to the local reefs.
The slow loris is another example of how ascribing human behaviors to an adorable creature can backfire.
YouTube hosts numerous videos of the big-eyed primates, and some of the most popular ones feature the animal being "tickled" or holding a tiny cocktail umbrella.
The adorable videos fueled demand for the slow loris as a pet, and illegal smuggling of the animal has become a serious issue.
Although anthropomorphism may not always have positive effects on a species' conservation, to many environmentalists, it's still a beneficial way to help people develop empathy for animals.
"Empathy is essential to promoting concern for animals and species, and if projecting our human perceptual world on those beings helps people on that learning path, it's important," conservation psychologist John Fraser said.
Related on MNN:
- 15 famous animal conservationists
- 10 odd ways we protect endangered species
- Why cute viral videos are bad for endangered animals
Photos: (Finding Nemo) Walt Disney Pictures, (slow loris) Wikimedia Commons