In the course of research for my book on animal shelter history, I’ve been checking out how children learn their attitudes toward animals. For well over 100 years now, children’s books have included a genre where animals are presented as thinking and feeling like humans. After movies and television were invented, children started seeing these stories on the screen as well.
One of the first of these stories to be widely read was the novel Black Beauty, which told the life story of a horse in the style of an autobiography. Over 2 million copies of Black Beauty were distributed back in the late 1800s by humane educators in the United States who hoped that reading the story would create empathy for animals in children. (Today, the total number of distributed copies of Black Beauty is over 50 million.) Since 1900 there has been a steady stream of kindred stories, including Rin Tin Tin, the Terhune collies, Lassie, Old Yeller, various Disney characters, Stuart Little the mouse, and Charlotte the spider.
Many people criticize these stories as anthropomorphizing animals — attributing human characteristics to them that they don’t have. Is this a fair criticism? Have generations of parents been leading their children astray by encouraging them to read and watch stories about animals who think and talk like people?
Scientists point out that we do not know if any domestic animal has a “theory of mind” – an ability to recognize that others besides itself have minds like its own. One could argue in rebuttal that theory of mind is not needed to form emotional attachments, and that animals, including people, form social attachments based on emotion, not on reason. Even if your dog were to think of you as a giant robot, it would still love you. And I doubt if dogs and cats go beyond the feeling of love to examine the mental nature of the people in their lives. I doubt if, when they are looking inscrutable, they are wondering if you have a mind like theirs.
Several people I’ve interviewed who were involved with animal sheltering back in the 1970s and 1980s noticed a change in the attitude of the public toward their pets during that time. People became more reluctant to bring their pets to a shelter. At the same time, shelter intake began to drop sharply. There may have been several reasons why people changed their attitudes about pets, but one factor could have been children’s stories and movies that created a sense of empathy with animals. The generation that matured in the 1970s was exposed to more “anthropomorphic” stories, in more types of media, than any generation before it. Stuart Little was published in 1945, Charlotte’s Web in 1952, and Old Yeller in 1956. Some of the most popular Disney movies about animals were from that period as well, including Bambi (1942), Lady and the Tramp (1955), the movie version of Old Yeller (1957), and 101 Dalmatians (1961). There were seven Lassie movies between 1943 and 1951, and the Lassie television series started in 1954.
So do anthropomorphic stories and movies help children learn to be kind? We don’t know for sure, but it’s very possible. And since children (and adults) love such stories, hopefully the tradition will continue. It may be a very good thing for shelter animals if it does.