Anthropomorphic ‘Zootopia’

Ever since I watched the trailer of the latest Disney movie ‘Zootopia’, I know I wanted to watch it. It has animals, looked fun and ‘they could all speak English’ – what more do I need to watch this movie?


But with work and other commitments, it took me a long time and finally I watched it yesterday. During this long waiting time, I read a few reviews and one word kept repeating ‘ANTHROPOMORPHISM’. As someone studying animal behaviour, this complex word is a commonly used word in my vocabulary. For the benefit of all, the definition by Mariam-Webster is

” an interpretation of what is not human or personal in terms of human or personal characteristics :  humanization” 

As to whether animals emotions or not has been a long lasting argument in the field of animal behaviour biology. While owners of pets like cats and dogs would readily talk about the personalities and feeling of their pets, such ideas are not always well received in the scientific community. Dr Jane Goodall was criticized for  the perceived “anthropomorphic” studies of chimpanzees. She was one of the first few researchers to give their study subjects human names, which was looked down upon during those times. Study subjects were given numbers so the researchers don’t form emotional attachments and compromise on their research.

I would like to recount a story I heard from Dr Jane on her initial days of publishing her work. She had sent a hand-written (yes, it was the 60s) manuscript for review, she received it back with edits where the names of chimpanzees were replaced with numbers and the pronouns ‘he’, ‘she’ replaced with ‘it’. Guess what Dr Jane did? She sent the manuscript back to the editor but changing the edits back to her original script!!! Times have changed and it is now a common practice to give names for study subjects which I diligently follow too 🙂 A recent article ‘Maybe it’s time to take animal feelings seriously‘ provides a nice summary of anthropomorphism in animal behaviour studies.

Coming back to Zootopia, as they say in the movie that predators and preys have evolved to co-exist, I feel humans are also becoming more open to understanding their evolutionary roots especially for emotions such as co-operation, mourning, reconciliation, etc. in a scientific way. I recommend Zootopia for its fun and sensitivity, but more importantly to appreciate animal behaviour (Disclaimer: with some creative liberties). However my deepest regret with Zootopia is WHY NO MONKEYS OR APES????



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