As humans we can pretty much convince ourselves of seeing anything and often think we see animals smiling or looking puzzled. We generally feel that koalas look happy and cosy but hyenas look aggressive and mean and these ideas often spill over into conservation.
I am in no way suggesting that animals do not have emotions, of course they do, but is it effective to apply our own emotions onto them?
The first way to look at this is that by animating and anthropomorphising animals we can relate to them. If we take Disney/Pixar for example, it was very sad when Dumbo’s mum was locked up and I think we all felt a wave of relief when Nemo found his dad again. Whilst it was clear that people were rooting for the character rather than the species, the problem is that this is where many people first see these animal species. This makes them predisposed to “see” certain traits in animals, traits which are not always helpful. The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Species) believes that the way hyenas have been portrayed in films has led to an increase in persecution in those animals. People are looking at them differently, they are not simply hyena, they are the animals that teased and bullied Simba when he was so small and adorable. They must be horrible and thus we can do without them, or so goes the argument.
On the other hand though Cinderella, and many other characters, spoke to the animals and made us think that the animals could understand, could empathise and could actually think and feel as we do. We see rats and mice playing key roles in animated films and it could be argued that these animals are becoming more popular and more valued, moving them away from stereotypes such as “flea ridden vermin who wiped out much of Europe”.
It is no surprise that films influence reality but what I found surprising was that this is a well-studied phenomenon with many conflicting theories and views. There is a certain truth to the view that “We can only imagine the minds of animals in human terms”. It is difficult to imagine that animals do not feel happy, sad or lonely but their minds are very different to ours.
The danger to anthropomorphising animals is that you see the character and not the animal. Beijing zoo has a panda that has repeatedly attacked people who enter its enclosure. The story prompted CNN news to say that Gu Gu (the panda) was “not your typical soft and cuddly giant panda”. Pandas are not typically soft and cuddly, that idea came from the media. A panda is very capable of pulling your limbs off, it is not a teddy bear and if you are stupid enough to break into an enclosure or approach a wild one you will be attacked.
More recently, with the release of “Finding Dory” we have seen an increase in demand for Blue Tang (the species that Dory was). People see the film and want the fish despite it being unsuitable for captivity. A popular TV show in Japan about a friendly racoon led to a huge number of racoons being bought as pets, so clearly this is an issue across different cultures. Similarly we have the “Bambi Effect” where we’ve become convinced that deer are lovely, harmless creatures because of Bambi. I love deer, but in some places they are hugely damaging and must be removed but often this is not done due to widespread public support, support which is often based on an animated film. This is not just the Bambi Effect, of course they are other factors about charismatic animals that makes us favour them but the “Bambi Effect” (favouring an animal due to an animated character) is contributory.
The danger that many conservationists worry about is that if we anthropomorphise animals then it sets them above others in terms of conservation. If implies that ones “like us” deserve to be saved but lesser species can be left to die out. However, people already are favouring iconic animals over perceived lesser species and so it is not clear whether this is a real problem or whether the ship has already sailed. The more difficult problem is that conservation is trying to move towards ecosystem based conservation, rather than individual species and elevating certain species tends to detract from this. That is why nowadays when you give to a panda charity, your money normally goes to forest conservation rather than going specifically to panda research.
There are many, apparently, who feel that talking animals on TV serves to confuse young children about reality and we should not longer show this on TV. I feel that is much more an issue with their lifestyle and upbringing than about the direct effect of the films. Beauty and the Beast had a talking clock and candlestick but I don’t recall a wave of confused children who began talking to clocks. Let’s give the children a little credit for intelligence and not treat them like they are utterly incapable of separating fantasy and reality.
Making animals and life in general a bit more fun by imaging what they are thinking is not a crime. We just need to remember that animals are animals, dogs will chase rabbits, pandas will kill you and sharks will try to eat you. They have their own nature but I feel that making an effort to empathise and understand the animals, even a misguided one, is better than making no effort at all and can be beneficial overall.