Anthropomorphism is a big mouthful of a word to think about. We anthropomorphize when we attribute human form or personality to any nonhuman creature or object. We do it all the time and think nothing of it. While it’s clear that inanimate objects, like mountains or lakes, can’t really possess human feelings, it becomes less clear when it comes to our animal neighbors.
Primitive people believed that all the animals had feelings and emotions similar to their own. The pendulum swung completely the other way for awhile as more advance societies reserved higher emotions and thoughts to humans alone. There are still some who hold to that, but science in recent years has revealed a great deal about animal thought and emotions that blur the once-clear line that we felt separated us from other creatures, and it matters little if they are wild or domestic.
I spent a couple of days closely observing wildlife out in the Loess Hills of western Iowa last week. A friend and I were hunting turkeys, and though our turkey hunting was unsuccessful, we had a marvelous time sitting quietly in our camouflaged hiding spots and observing many kinds of birds and animals right up close. They had no idea we were there most of the time, and thus behaved in whatever manner was normal for them. It was pretty easy to understand the actions and thinking of a young buck deer that spent several minutes only 20 feet away from me. He was cautious as deer almost always are. He constantly sniffed the air and his ears rotated like radar dishes. Yet, he was obviously curious about my turkey decoys. A live hen turkey was feeding nearby and he was obviously used to sharing the early morning corn stubble with turkeys. There was something about that decoy, though. All his senses were on high alert as he cautiously edged toward the plastic decoy. He’d take a few steps, stretch his nose out and check for scent. Then he’d take a few more and check again. At last he was right next to the decoy and moved his nose to a point where he almost touched it. Only at that point did surprise kick in when he must have smelled me on the decoy. He jumped straight up and trotted off about 50 feet. He then stopped, turned and studied that strange turkey that smelled like a human. Was that a puzzled expression on his face? He was obviously trying to figure the whole thing out as he stared back and snorted several times. He never flagged with his tail up in full alarm, but was still snorting occasionally as he wandered away.
Several young does also spent time nearby. They at times seemed to wander aimlessly around the field in front of us. Sometimes one of them would appear to tease the others with a fake charge with her tail up in alarm. She’d then stop and wait. The others would gracefully dance away a few feet and then dance back at her. They were plainly playing, almost like little lambs feeling good on a spring morning. We delighted in watching this activity for several minutes until a light wafting breeze carried our scent to one of the does, who then flagged with her tail for real as a signal to the others. They all trotted off with their white tails wagging in alarm.
Some friends who feed a hungry group of Baltimore orioles grape jelly had an amazing experience last week, too. The jelly feeder was getting low, so they thought they’d try another kind of jelly with some spiciness to it. Birds have a hard pallet and little sense of taste, but those orioles knew right away that the new jelly was distinctly not what they’d ordered from the menu. All of them appeared to express their displeasure at this turn of events by pecking repeatedly at the nearby window. The pecking continued until the feeder was refilled with grape jelly. They immediately stopped their window pecking and resumed feeding. Was that anger they were expressing, or were they just explaining that a wrong needed to be righted?
You can decide for yourself, but it’s my feeling that animals have feelings similar to, if not identical to, our own. They express those feelings in a variety of ways. We humans can learn to understand some of that communication if we closely observe them. If that’s anthropomorphism, then I’m a believer.
Steve Lekwa is a former director of Story County Conservation.