Survey shows U.S. citizens increasingly humanize animals

When a dentist from Minnesota killed Cecil the Lion in 2015, a controversial fallout divided many people in the wildlife community over questions of conservation and the tendency for some to anthropomorphize — attributing human values and characteristics to animals.

The lion (Panthera leo) had become famous among tourists in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe due to its black-fringed main. But when the big cat was legally killed on a paid hunt outside of the park, media and animal rights groups raised an outcry against hunting practices. But hunters said that money generated from trips like the one taken by the dentist are among the major funding mechanisms that aid conservation. They attacked the use of anthropomorphism, which they said leads to difficulty for wildlife managers attempting to protect native ecosystems through practices like lethal control of invasive species.

No matter which side of the issue people fall on, a new survey shows that residents across the U.S. are increasingly seeing wildlife in more anthropomorphic terms.

“It’s a really fundamental change in society that’s not a controllable change,” said Michael Manfredo, a professor of human dimensions of natural resources at Colorado State University and the lead author of the study published recently in Biological Conservation.

The study is part of a massive effort funded by a multi-state grant of the Associations of Fish and Wildlife Agencies that surveyed 43,949 people in all 50 states by mail and email. The purpose of the study was to repeat a study of 19 western states done in 2004 in an effort to track the public’s values toward wildlife over time.

The 2018 study supported the idea that wildlife has similar rights to humans, as opposed to the traditional view of seeing wildlife as a commodity. The 2004 study that found residents are increasingly viewing wildlife in terms of mutualism, or the belief that animals should have similar rights to humans. In the more recent study, anthropomorphism was measured based on a set of questions such as “animals have emotions” and “animals have free will.”

They found the country was divided into different regions when it came to how anthropomorphic respondents were. States like California, Hawaii and Florida had the highest rates of anthropomorphism while states like Wyoming and the Dakotas had the lowest.

The researchers also looked at urbanization rates, education level and income and found that urbanization didn’t seem to have a strong effect on people’s beliefs, but higher education levels and income tended to be related to higher levels of anthropomorphism.  Moreover, anthropomorphism was found to be strongly associated with mutualism.

Manfredo proposes that prior to WWII, western society was more focused on subsistence and safety, but following the war, with the remarkable economic growth and increased well-being, concern shifted to societal belonging and interaction. In that transition, animals became less feared and less necessary for utilitarian purposes. This fostered an increase in anthropomorphism as animals were increasingly portrayed as humans in all forms of communication including children stories, advertisements, nature documentaries and cartoons. As this occurred, wildlife values began to shift toward mutualism.

“If you take all these things together it fuels this idea that people start to see animals, wildlife included, as human-like,” Manfredo said, adding that this value shift is likely happening in other western countries as well. “When you can put a name to a bear you automatically put a connection to it,” Manfredo said.  “No longer are they a commodity. They start to be afforded the same considerations and moral reasonings that we give to humans, hence this sense of mutualism.”

This shift creates a challenge for wildlife professionals, he said. “Our study shows clearly that mutualism is predictive of opposition to traditional wildlife management techniques (lethal control) and a decline in hunting participation.”

The shift towards more anthropomorphism and animal rights presents a challenge for wildlife managers, said TWS Immediate Past President Darren Miller, a Certified Wildlife Biologist.

“To me it is troublesome to see this trend of people putting human emotions and values on wildlife for a lot of reasons,” he said.

Miller agrees with the findings of the study conducted by Manfredo and his colleagues, but he worries that such societal shifts will make it harder to manage invasive species that can have devastating impacts on native ecosystems. For example, regional wildlife agencies are working to eliminate Burmese pythons (Python bivittatus) from parts of Florida and to remove feral swine (Sus scrofa) from various states and Canadian provinces, but animal rights groups often oppose lethal control. Meanwhile, controlling charismatic species like invasive feral horses in the western U.S. is an incredibly contentious topic.

“Wildlife managers are responsible for protecting populations. The individual isn’t always important,” Miller said.

Manfredo emphasized that the tendency to anthropomorphize is natural and all humans do it. For example, hunters do it when putting a name to a deer that has eluded them or in how they talk to their bird dog. Yet hunter numbers are declining, meaning a drop in traditional sources of conservation funding, leaving are looking for new ways to connect with people in order to better represent their views. The good news for conservation is that anthropomorphism draws people closer to wildlife, Manfredo said.

“The question is: How do we build these bridges with them?” Manfredo said. Fish and wildlife agencies typically focus on traditional things like fishing and angling, he said. These are important, but “how do we embrace these other constituents?”

Miller agrees that increased sympathy for animals can benefit wildlife, but he worries about problems associated with valuing the rights of every individual animal equally.

“This trend, which isn’t surprising, provides both challenges and opportunities for wildlife management,” he said.

Header Image: When a hunter shot the lion known as Cecil, pictured here in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe in 2010, it triggered a discussion about changing attitudes toward wildlife. ©Craig Taylor