News Index > Sortable News 10/06 - now > August 2007
Necessary Anthropomorphizing

Of Michael Vick and the nature of animals, Atlanta, Georgia


Published 07.25.07

Polar bears are drowning as the Arctic ice they inhabit melts. The bears, which occupy the imagination of every child, may be headed for extinction. But global warming is a myth, right? And even if it's not, species naturally go extinct anyway, right?

Three whales have died at the Georgia Aquarium. Nobody can say exactly why, but the attraction immediately ordered up replacements for the two dead whale sharks. Is there a better example of the subjugation of freedom and life to technology? We plunder the natural world, re-create it through technology and, when it fails, we plunder nature and exploit its inhabitants further. Hey, it's educational, and learning is never cruel, right?

And now Falcons quarterback Michael Vick has been indicted along with three other men for their part in a dogfighting operation conducted at Vick's Surry County, Va., property. The 18-page indictment reads like a discourse in sadism. Men raised dogs to destroy one another and the losing animals were executed by hanging, drowning, electrocution, shooting and, in one case, beating the ground with the dog's body.

Vick's case is particularly grotesque because of its scale, but torment of animals is not unique. Just Google "animal cruelty" and countless recent cases will pop up. Two 15-year-old girls, for example, were charged with animal cruelty in Sonoma County (Calif.) Juvenile Court last week. The two are accused of setting a 3-month-old kitten on fire after dousing it with lighter fluid. The kitten has survived after undergoing two surgeries. A man in Columbia, S.C., was sentenced last week to three years in prison for throwing a boxer puppy on the burning coals of a grill. The pup died.

The night after Vick's indictment was announced, I had the same kind of nightmares I have after seeing horror movies. Images of dogs tearing at one another's throat alternated with a pathetically sweet image buried in one story about the indictment. Some dogs, thrown into the blood-stained pit on Vick's property, didn't want to fight. They licked one another. They were done away with, of course.

Most everyone who owns a pet is horrified by stories of animal cruelty, but we tend to be less concerned with the conditions of animals that inhabit nature. James Hillman, author of Dream Animals (and many other books on psychology), writes that our indifferent attitude toward animals is a failure of the imagination.

He particularly cites the way science condemns any comparison of animals to humans as "anthropomorphism." According to science, anything we attribute to "dumb" animals in terms of personality is a projection of our own thoughts and feelings, since animals do not express themselves in our language.

"The scientific fear of falling into anthropomorphism cuts the human world from the animal kingdom," Hillman writes. "This fear also leads us to distrust our intuitions and insights, putting a curse on empathy."

He continues: "Unless we anthropomorphize, we are doomed to read a horse's gambol not as its joy but as our projection, a stray dog's whining not as its desperation but as our sentimental identification with its plight, a 'coon's thrashing in a trap not as its fear but as our own claustrophobia and victimization."

Those who rue anthropomorphizing believe consciousness belongs only to human beings. For them, animals are robots to whom it makes no difference whether they occupy nature or a cage. Destroying their habitats matters little because, such people think, animals don't experience feelings, and the planet is ours, not theirs. Animals just move on or die without feeling anything about it.

All pet owners realize that animals in fact have strong individual personalities and, far from being disengaged, have emotional lives. Dogs and cats spontaneously come to comfort their owners when they are sad. Stroking their fur is mysteriously comforting. The experience of communicating with an animal is magical. Everything about them is straightforward. In the wild, they display themselves and then hide, daring us to follow them into a world of more immediate awareness.

A friend with whom I discussed the Vick case last week said that animals, far from being our inferiors, are our moral superiors. "They never lie," he said. "Humans learn to lie as soon as they start speaking."

That is part of what is so disgusting about the dogfights on Vick's property. The animals were denied their nature, twisted by the corrupt morality of human beings. It is disturbing that the NFL did not immediately suspend Vick. He allegedly hosted the dogfights even if he didn't participate in them, as he claims. But the decision demonstrates the sad truth that where money is concerned, animals - polar bears, whales and dogs - almost always lose.

Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology. For information on his private practice, go to

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