Anthropomorphisms: When We Say Animals are Like Us

David Reinstein,LCSWStarred Page By David Reinstein,LCSW, 28th Dec 2011 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL
Posted in Wikinut>Guides>Languages

We ascribe human qualities to animals for a wide range of reasons. This is a variety of what we call "Anthropomorphism."

Using Animals to Symbolize Human Characteristics

In literature, visual imagery and colloquial language, animals are often used to personify specific human characteristics. These creatures, with which we share the Earth, are generally not able to willfully confirm or deny the human-like characteristics we attribute to them. They are, in a sense, receivers of what mental health professionals would call our “projections.” That is to say that in a way that parallels what most of often do with other people, we ascribe characteristics of our own (or ones we wish we had!) to someone else. We do this with animals, too.

Outside of the possibly psychological dynamic involved in this, the phenomenon is called “Anthropomorphism;” Literally, the assigning of human qualities to animals (or even to non-living things.) The process is also sometimes referred to, especially in literature, as “Personification.”

No matter what it is called, we humans are exercising our ability to say or think anything about anything or anyone else, human or otherwise.

Because animals cannot speak back on their own behalf, we Homo Sapiens are free to use them to embody any characteristic we may choose. Many of these have evolved from the way we see and believe we understand the behavior of an animal. Sometimes, the attributes have developed through use in fiction or myth and have simply been passed down by tradition through language.

There assigned human attributes can be inconsistent and even contradictory. They can certainly vary according to specific culture. Some animals carry, as metaphors for human qualities, many characteristics while others are well known for only one or two.

Here is a random assortment of examples to consider when asking, “What human attributes do animals personify?”

The Lion

Often referred to in mythology, religious works and parables, the creature known as "The King of Beasts" has been endowed with many admirable human traits. Among the best known are:

- Strong
- Brave
- Family-oriented
- Ferocious
- Cowardly (when in OZ)

The Mule

The mule has been a "beast of burden" for many centuries. This assigned role as muscle to assist humans in their efforts has led to some specific characteristics being routinely attributed to them. These include:

- Strong
- Stubborn
- A Democrat?

The Mouse

Known to have frightened Victorian (and ,perhaps, some more contemporary) women into standing up on a chair and screaming hysterically, this tiny creature is probably most commonly regarded as being:

- Quiet (Sh!)

The Cat

One of the most common of the animals we regard as "domestic," we feel that we know cats particularly well. Among the things we are quite certain that we know about them are that they are:

- Selfish
- Narcissistic
- Fastidiously groomed
- Great fans of sleeping

The Beaver

These creatures seem to spend a good part of their waking lives on task. Building a home is something many humans can relate to - but, as an all-consuming activity? We say that these flat-tailed critters are:

- Busy
- Industrious
- Hard working
- (They give a dam :-})

The Elephant

Believed to have some inteligence that is more like our own then is the case with most other species, it is interesting that most people associate only one specific human quality with these giant mammals:

- Never forgets

The Owl

Because they often sit still and quietly, owls are especially easy targets to project on. If we were being so silent and still, we might like to believe that we, too, were:

- Observant
- Wise


The bane of every picnic since time immemorial. In one sense, we admire their perseverence in getting a job done while in another, they make us devotees of insecticides:

- Industrious
- Pests

The Rabbit

Generally agreed to be cute, these long-eared, furry rodents are popular characters in children's stories. I suspect that our idea of "hopping" comes directly from observing how these bunnies move from place to place:

- Procreates prodigiously
- Is always in a hurry
- (Is not as smart as the hare :-})

The Fox

By any name (whether Reynard or Fire), this small woodland creature has been ascribed one attribute known to every child who has ever been read Aesop:

- Well, sly of course!

The Snake

Narked by the symbolism of the Book of Genesis in Eden, the slithering serpent rarely has positive qualities associated with it by anyone but certain Native Americans. More commonly, they are said to be:

- Deceitful
- Dangerous
- Slippery

The Dog

Like cats, humans feel that they know dogs quite well. Maybe we do and maybe we do not. In any event, we ascribe some of our more favorable and desirably qualities to them:

- Always faithful
- Mans best friend

The Turkey

Poor bird. Can't fly very far, confuses it's own reflection with another one of its own kind and winds up on many tables (not as a guest) during holiday celebrations:

- Stupid


Animals are being, of course, simple true to their own designs, instincts and reflexes. Many seem to learn somethings sometimes, but the way they seem to ‘learn’ is not to be confused with the nature of human learning.

We humans will continue to project and anthropomorphize because we can. It is our nature to use language to help ourselves believe we understand the creatures we share our planet with.


Animal, Animals, Anthropomorphisms, Ascribe Human Characteristics, Behavior Of An Animal, Colloquial Language, Homo Sapiens, Human Characteristics, Personification, Projection

Meet the author

author avatar David Reinstein,LCSW
Clinical Social Worker (Psychotherapist), humorist, poet and musician, Born in Boston and a relatively unscathed survivor of the 60's.
Please GOOGLE me at:
David Reinstein, LCSW

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author avatar Mark Gordon Brown
28th Dec 2011 (#)

A lot of people not only try to assign human traits to animals, but also do the reverse, assigning animal traits to humans - for example calling humans "sloths", "pigs" or "dogs".

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author avatar Mikey.
28th Dec 2011 (#)

Well done David, Very entertaining.

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author avatar Ivyevelyn, R.S.A.
28th Dec 2011 (#)

David: I loved this page. I certainly had never come across the word anthropomorphize. The pictures and comments were delightful. Thank you for brightening my day.

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author avatar cnwriter..carolina
28th Dec 2011 (#)

this is a most entertaining piece especially for those who love animals of all kinds..

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author avatar M G Singh
29th Dec 2011 (#)

Very informative , Good post

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author avatar Delicia Powers
29th Dec 2011 (#)

Beautiful page David, thank you and Happy New Year!

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author avatar Buzz
29th Dec 2011 (#)

Interesting and entertaining, David.

Happy New Year!

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