My childhood years can be pretty much summed up with the following; Paulie, Napoleon, Bambi, Dumbo, The Swan Princess, 101 Dalmatians and Free Willy. I’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?
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.
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!
Burke, C, Copenhaver, J, 2004, ‘Animals as people in Children’s Literature,’ Language Arts, Vol. 81, no. 3, pp205-213