Talking animals

My childhood years can be pretty much summed up with the following;  Paulie, Napoleon, Bambi, DumboThe Swan Princess, 101 Dalmatians and Free WillyI’m sure you can understand where I’m going with this…I was obsessed with these films, watching them on repeat and I found myself so drawn to the main characters. Whether it was the beauty and grace of Princess Odette the swan, or the adventurous spirit of the little puppy Napoleon, I looked up to them, and often found myself liking them a lot more than their human co-stars. This week, I’ve been wondering what made me love these non-human characters so much? But more importantly, do they still mean so much to me now?

Napoleon, 1995 movie poster - Image source IMDB

Napoleon, 1995 movie poster – Image source IMDB

Paulie, 1998 Movie poster - Image source;  IMDB

Paulie, 1998 Movie poster – Image source; IMDB

In 2004, Carolyn Burke and Joby Copenhaver asked similar questions, considering the reasons why animals in Children’s literature are so often given human characteristics. Thinking all the way back to fairy-tales of the Three Blind Mice, The Little Red Hen, and the Three Little Pigs, our first introductions to animals as children gave them human qualities to help children learn about the world in more simplistic ways. This anthropomorphic approach to animals in children’s literature, film, and TV gives animals a purpose of teaching children life-long morals and values, or more simply distinguishing between the ‘good’ three little pigs and the ‘evil’ big bad wolf (Burke, et al, 2004 p 210).

The fact is, these humanistic animals we’re so used to seeing in our childhood media actually has a bigger impact on us than we first think. Not only do these creatures allow children to learn life lessons in a simplistic and playful manner, but it also shapes our consideration for animals and how they are treated. I’d like to ask, why is it when animals are portrayed in the media, particularly for children,  they are so often shown speaking our language and acting like us?

Often, we seem to feel the need to speak on behalf of animals. In a superior sense, humans like think we know what’s best for others and ourselves. But sometimes, this assumption can have harsh consequences for who we wish to speak for. In particular, our animal friends.

An obvious example is identified in the 2013 documentary Blackfish, exposing the treatment of killer whales at Sea World parks in the US. The documentary saw former Sea World trainer, Carol Ray,  explain that the tricks Sea World had the whales performing were their ‘ natural behaviours,’ a statement she now recognises as a simple party-line she was made to say. The documentary also exposes the risks involved with the limited understanding humans have created around the lives of captive animals. For example, Sea World stating that killer whales only live between 25 and 35 years, or that the whales are held in a comfortable habitat, statements the documentary quickly tells us are entirely false. A concern the documentary raises is if we only rely on the constructed information provided by humans who make a profit by using animals, we will not be able to fully understand or appreciate the value these animals have to the world.

Still of Tilikum, the largest killer whale to be ever heldd in captivity, from http://blackfishmovie.com/stills

Still of Tilikum, the largest killer whale to be ever held in captivity, from http://blackfishmovie.com/stills

An organisation aiming to rectify the situation and amplify the voices of animals and their rights is The Dodo. An online community in which animal lovers commit to advocate for the protection and ethical treatment of animals. The symbolism of the dodo bird itself, “a mysterious bird we drove into extinction nearly 400 years ago,” serves to remind us of the human impact on animals and promote a new view on the treatment of them, not as a disposable object created for human exploitation, but as an intelligent, emotional and social being on par with the human race (The Dodo, 2015).

To answer my question from the beginning of this blog, I do believe animals still mean a lot to me today and its not so different to how I felt as a child. While I recognised the animals in my childhood films and stories as my equals, today through my research into the treatment of animals (and a few amazing David Attenbourough docos too) I’ve grown to understand animals all have a purpose on this planet, and just like you or I they are sentient beings worthy of human compassion. Here’s to hoping that the future for animals is not one where they’re only loved for their human qualities portrayed in fairy-tales but their intrinsic intelligence and knowledge that may be used to inspire humans to work with animals and continue to extend their voices for the general public to understand.

Thanks for reading!

References:

Burke, C, Copenhaver, J, 2004, ‘Animals as people in Children’s Literature,’  Language Arts, Vol. 81, no. 3, pp205-213

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6 thoughts on “Talking animals

  1. Dear Jasmine,

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post as I feel you mentioned some very valid points regarding the misrepresentation of animals in the media, which is clearly a very apparent issue in our contemporary society. I also spent a lot of my childhood idolising various animal characters from films and cartoons, so I share this affiliation with you. I found your post to be extremely engaging and relatable, as you have written this blog from a very personal perspective, which offers more depth and sincerity to your arguments.

    The point you have raised in response to animal characters in children’s films and cartoons being given human qualities, is one that does provoke questions for us as a society. These characters, portrayed by our animal friends, play a huge role in shaping our understanding of the world we live in. From a very young age, children are positioned to love (and in some cases hate), various animal characters who behave the same way as humans, teaching us lessons and morals about society. It seems rather contradictory that on the same television screen we currently displaying shows on the ABC network such as the children’s cartoons ‘Angelina Ballerina’ and “Arthur’ for example, coupled with Animal Welfare documentaries played at a later time slot. Perhaps the shock tactics used in these documentaries is the only way to get the attention of a larger audience as evidently, a monumental degree of animal suffering in the media is overlooked.

    I agree that it is be a huge responsibility to speak on behalf of another living creature, and stress that this needs to be exercised with extreme caution. Who decides who should speak for who, and why? It is true that in movies and cartoons made for children the same thing is occurring and someone is speaking on their behalf. I feel that with all the conflicting ideologies present on this issue, speaking on behalf of another living being will remain a site of extreme contestation. The language we use to refer to animals ultimately informs our thoughts and perceptions of who they are and our thoughts and perceptions influence our actions. I think you are right in mentioning that we as individuals do have the power and opportunity to do what is ethically right for our animal counterparts and therefore must take corrective measures to treat and represent them to the best of our ability. After all, if we as media practitioners do not take this issue seriously, then who will?

    Finally, I thought the reference to the ‘Dodo’ online community was very fitting, and will hopefully redirect future readings to this website, and remind them of the prevalence and effect of human impact has over animals.

    A very well written post with clearly executed points regarding a very, very important issue.

    Thank you!

    • Hey Lara! What an insightful response 🙂 I love finding that people are relating to my posts personally. I love the controversial questions you raise about how do we decide who should speak on behalf on animals and do we as the human race even have to? These are complicated questions to answer, but I do believe, in the right contest that humans are able to speak for animals in their best interest – in the case of the ‘Dodo.’ And you’re exactly right, as media practitioners, we are in a position that allows us to highlight these issues online and spread awareness about ways we can prevent the mistreatment of animals in the future.

      Thank you again for your lovely comment 🙂
      Jasmine

  2. Hi Jasmine!

    I really enjoyed reading this post. Like you, I grew up watching Napoleon and many other children’s shows and movies with animals playing as the main characters and speaking in an American accent. I agree with you, that humans like to decide whats best for animals and I think it’s because they can’t speak in words that people forget that animals have feelings and emotions just like us and it is such a shame that most people these days will turn a blind eye towards many animal rights issues because most of the time, these situations are too barbaric for people to want to think about. But with the education of animals rights through schools and universities and with the help of media and communication students like us, I hope that we are able to one day bring animal cruelty an end.

    Great job! 🙂

  3. I agree, We always seem to portray animals how we want them to be instead of how they actually are. They should portray animals how they are and highlight the characteristics that make them unique.

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