“Anthropomorphism – the showing or treating of animals, gods, and objects as if they are human in appearance, character, or behaviour” – Cambridge Dictionary 2017
When looking into the world of Wildlife Documentaries, we are often sold on the humanistic stories of the animals we are watching. Often Wildlife documentaries are criticised about the use of anthropomorphism techniques and the ethical issues this rises.
One ethical issue raised by Pollo, Graziano & Giacoma (2009) is the use of “film-makers ‘tricks’ to facilitate their approach to animals or to make them display the desired behaviours”. The ‘tricks’ involve using food to bait animals, and other methods that may cause harm to the animals. This is done to create interest for the audience and is often heavily edited after. The article concludes that humans have morally sound interests in recording and viewing animal behaviour, but animals have interests in not being harmed in the making of reportage and documentaries. The article also points out that there should be taxation on the making of documentaries that contributes to conservation projects. If we are going to continue to disrupt animals by filming them in their natural habitat, we should aim to give back to them in order to aid their longevity.
Another article written by Adcroft (2010) argues why anthropomorphism is useful in documentaries and how this can benefit the animals. Adcroft (2010) explains that “humans have an inherent tendency to understand the world in light of our own experiences” and therefore we use “anthropomorphism to bring non-human objects and experiences into our realm of understanding”. This is why anthropomorphism has to be used in documentaries otherwise humans would have no interest in watching documentaries of animals behaving naturally. Adcroft also explains how anthropomorphism can help animals by:
- being used as a powerful and useful tool in influencing an audience’s response, and:
- Anthropomorphism has the potential to enhance environmental awareness.
Hence why humans need anthropomorphism to generate empathy for the animals and their environment. Without anthropomorphism, humans would have no interest in the impact that our actions have on the animals and the environment. Adcroft points out the paradox of anthropomorphism, “while it can distance us from the realities of wildlife, it appears it can allow nature to become an integral part of our worldview” hence it may have influenced the growth and support of wildlife conservation.
While both articles argued the negatives and positives of anthropomorphism in documentaries, its apparent that it is needed to generate understanding between the human world and animals. Although it can be a detriment to the animals current health, in the long run it seems to positively impact the livelihood of animals through conservation and humans general knowledge of helping animals.
Here are a few of my favourite uses of anthropomorphism in popular culture using documentaries.
These videos show how anthropomorphism can be used for humour. Humans can relate to the animals in these videos even though it is not a true representation of why the animals behave in such a manner.
Humans rely on documentaries to properly represent the true nature of a situation or behaviour of animals, as this is how we learn about wildlife. As Wexler (2008) explains that “viewers regard films sequences as realistic because of cultural tendencies resulting from 19th century understandings of photography and film as mechanically accurate reproductions of visual world”. How is the general public to know if what is being produced the truth? Therefore film crew and producers of documentaries should have a responsibility to create accurate accounts.
Adcroft, J 2010, ‘Reframing perceptions of anthropomorphism in wildlife film and documentary’, University of Otago, <https://ourarchive.otago.ac.nz/bitstream/handle/10523/1615/AdcroftJE2011MSciComm.pdf?sequence=>
Pollo, S, Graziano, M, Giacoma, C 2009, ‘The ethics of natural history documentaries’, Animal Behaviour, vol 77:5, p 1357-1360 <http://ey9ff7jb6l.search.serialssolutions.com.ezproxy.uow.edu.au//?sid=Elsevier:Scopus&genre=article&issn=00033472&volume=77&issue=5&spage=1357&epage=1360&pages=1357-1360&artnum=&date=2009&title=Animal+Behaviour&atitle=The+ethics+of+natural+history+documentaries&aufirst=S.&auinit=S.&auinit1=S&aulast=Pollo&id=doi:10.1016%2fj.anbehav.2009.01.022>
Wexler, R, 2008, ‘Onward, Christian penguins: wildlife film and the image of scientific authority’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, vol 39 p273-279. <http://artsites.ucsc.edu/faculty/gustafson/FILM%20161.F08/readings/marchpenguins.pdf>