Our drive to anthropomorphize animals obscures the fact that we are all part of the same complex ecosystem.
This article is taken from the June 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine, why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five numbers for just £10.
EITHEROn the wall of my study hangs a dusty print of Mr Fox’s Hunt Breakfast on Christmas Day by illustrator Harry Neilson. Mr. Fox is a jolly old man, dressed in a hunting fig, with more than a hint of Terry Thomas in him. His astute guests sit next to him, similarly dressed, dining on roast pheasant and hard-boiled eggs. On the oak-paneled wall behind them, you can see artwork showing hunters running to the ground or taking falls from their steeds. The hound masks are mounted on shields, their severed sterns hanging like brushes below.
Obviously we know this is fantasy. Hounds kill foxes, foxes don’t kill hounds, nor do they dress in hunting pink and pass through the port, even the most outgoing citizen knows that it is so.
However, despite all that, in the houses of country people, the people most connected to the cruel realities of nature, anthropomorphic art with the animals that we rednecks hunt, shoot or chase are a basic element in the wall decoration. Mr. Fox twisted into a swallow’s tail, hoofed pheasants or a deer laughing at his partner’s unfortunate bull’s-eye birthmark. It’s just a bit of fun, isn’t it?
The cave paintings open a window to the Neolithic vision of nature. Most represent depictions of the hunting and gathering lifestyle of our early ancestors. A tantalizing few of these ocher finger smudges and charcoal streaks are more than just reportage, revealing images of deeper thought and awareness. These go far beyond spear throwing and tarred mammoth pits, instead representing what are believed to be animal spirits: hunters who transform and hunt together.
In 1998, Steven Mithen, professor of archeology at the University of Reading, wrote The prehistory of the mind. It caused no little concern among psychologists. Mithen argued that anthropomorphic art, such as the hybrid figure of man and deer found in the Trois-Frères caves, popularly known as “The Sorcerer” (Correct), marks the very awakening of the human mind. He hypothesizes that these paintings represent an embryonic understanding of man’s relationship to the natural world.
This 15,000-year-old representation of man’s connection to nature, he says, remains ingrained in humans today. It is the point, he argues, where we humans understand that we are part of a natural hierarchy, a social order where we sit at the head.
One could argue that the anthropomorphic caricatures of Harry Neilson, Bryn Parry, or Simon Trinder et al simply follow this pattern, reinforcing the enduring notion of the largely benevolent dictatorship that humans have over animals. This idea is not limited to the art we hang in our downstairs toilet.
Subconsciously, we endow animals with human emotions and traits, much of it colored by the relationships we have with that animal. The brown rat, for example, is really just a rat, but most humans have it marked as a loathsome food thief, a four-legged, scaly-tailed purveyor of pestilence.
The gray squirrel is a tree destroying Yank, the carrion crow a gothic creature of the damned, and the magpie his superstition-ridden accomplice and songbird killer. Red deer, meanwhile, are monarchs, roe deer are ethereal, carp are big ladies, and grouse are as rugged as the moors they live on.
Our anthropomorphism of species helps us rationalize our conservation practices. To me this applies to lethal predator control. When I catch a carrion crow with Larsen, I am well aware that this bird is a highly intelligent native, brighter than my dog, some scientists say.
My brain denies any qualms I may have, effectively arguing that the beady eye staring back at me, seconds before I batter its brains out with my cane, belongs to a ruthless grouse killer. The Gray Partridge, meanwhile, bestowed an adoration close to adoration. Does my mentality support Professor Mithen’s theory? Am I programmed, whether I like it or not, to fulfill my destiny and kill ravens so that the partridges live?
Anthropomorphism is not exclusive to those of us who shoot, fish and hunt. It is equally adored by the ranks at the opposite end of the spectrum, often used as a stealth weapon by those seeking to further an animal rights agenda and remove traces of the way the countryside is owned and managed. To that fox, which the avid hunter Neilson portrayed as a mischievous vermin, the anti-hunters accord him a nice sanctity.
The Game Spoilers Association delights in photographing its balaclava-clad activists cradling foxes. The scabby Virgin clutching the vulpine Christ child, protecting this innocent from the scarlet-robed Herod is an image that receives donations.
The beleaguered East Anglia gray partridge is shunned, simply because it’s loved by the fancy guys.
It is a sincere belief of animal rights advocates that the hierarchy shown in cave paintings is incorrect. In his opinion, there is no hierarchical order at all; animals for them are people in furry or feathery clothes. Raptors are similarly used by the anti-shooting lobby. Each of the 37 “missing” hen harriers listed on the “Raptor Persecution UK” blog written by Dr. Ruth Tingay, co-director of the lobby group Wild Justice, is dubbed with an anthropoid identifier: “Marc”, “Lia” . , “Finn”, “Octavia” and so on. The hen harrier is no longer a mere bird, it rises in emotional thermals alongside the man.
By bestowing a wild raptor with a human name, Dr. Tingay simultaneously dehumanizes the rangers as the killers of those 37 “missing” birds. That a bird of prey’s satellite tag has gone offline is less of a story than “Athena” has disappeared, presumably the victim of some belted earl’s tweed-clad footman.
The wildlife associated with field sports is similarly weaponized by the animal rights fraternity, this time through a reverse form of anthropomorphism. Pheasants, for example, are mentioned in so many tons of “non-native biomass”, thus downgrading the creature’s status as a bird to the equivalent of a potato. Bloodhounds are equally set apart from the rest of the dogs. More is pity for a bird that is flagged down by shooting conservationists, because as sure as jays steal eggs, it will be vilified by anti-shooters.
Out on the wastelands, the hen harrier is idealized by Wild Justice in “Skydancer”. The scruffy, weird curlew that lives next to them is a ranger favorite, so it gets no nickname or adoration and is casually discarded, collateral damage in the war by whoever controls the highlands. The perennially beleaguered gray partridge of East Anglia is similarly shunned, simply because it’s a game bird of the kind loved by posh types. Meanwhile, the sparrowhawks and vultures that have now returned in abundance to kill red-listed partridges are hailed as success stories: good raptors; bad game birds.
Anthropomorphism is multifaceted. On the one hand it is cartoonish, on the other corrosive. Giving a hen harrier a human name has never helped a hen harrier. He has simply turned them into a hammer with which to hit a caricatured communion of country people.
Animals and birds are neither saints nor sinners. Making one species bad and another good doesn’t do you any favors. Nor the ones we fired without fail. Rats are not FSB agents. The raven is just being a raven when it kidnaps the gray partridge pup I’ve worked all year to protect. I have to remember to rationalize my predator control: it’s as integral a part of being a conservationist as it is to put up hedges. I am trying to maintain a balance in nature because human beings are part of nature.
Humans today have much to learn from those who painted in caves in 13,000 BC. They did not hate or beatify animals, they simply saw them as part of their world. “The Sorcerer” in Trois-Frères, much like Mr. Fox’s Hunting Breakfast, it could be said that it pays a great honor to these animals. Both show the animal in the man and the man in the animal. Mr Fox tells us somewhat whimsically that we are both hunters. The Sorcerer reminds us that the humans who hunted deer were part of an ecosystem.
These truths are too often forgotten by those who pretend to love animals so much that they grant them human rights, feelings and emotions.