Monday, April 22, 2013

Fun with Anthropomorphism

By Deborah Sharp

An osprey flew overhead the other day as I sat on the backyard dock. The big bird clutched a mullet in its talons. Sometimes, I watch as a fish flops and wriggles, trying to escape. Once I saw one break free, splashing into the New River and darting away in a streak of silver.
But not this fish. He didn't wiggle. He didn't struggle.
''Check out that mullet's face,'' I said to my husband. "He looks completely resigned to his fate.''
"Oh, great. Now you're reading the fish's mind.''
Now, I know that many scientists -- along with my husband -- scoff at ascribing human emotions to finned, furred and feathered creatures. We're just projecting our own feelings and interpretations unto them, the scientists say. Still, in the proud tradition of many a mystery author, I'm not above a bit of anthropomorphism now and then. In my Mace Bauer Mysteries, a gator may look accusingly at the main character -- who has a sideline as a trapper. Sometimes, a cat that Mace inherited seems to listen sympathetically to her problems.
In my life outside fiction, I frequently imagine I know how an animal ''feels'' by the expression on its face.
A squirrel scurrying across an oak branch took a tumble and hit the ground, right at my feet. He wasn't hurt, but before he scrambled away, he shot me a look of sheer embarrassment. Recovering quickly, he replaced it with what looked more like cockiness.
"Uh, yeah, I intended to do that,'' said the look on his pointed little face.
I've also seen proud horses, regal birds, and confident cats. They reveal so much in the way they hold their heads, along with the look in their eyes.
I thought I was alone in this little quirk until I stumbled across thousands of hits for ''Guilty Dogs'' on the Internet. (Honestly, you can get lost, but here's one fun site:  )
Not only do all these jillions of people believe their dogs feel guilt, they catch them conveying that very emotion through adorable expressions. Here's one picture of such a dog:
And another:

Cat lovers have also jumped on the bandwagon. As far as I'm concerned, the feline pictures don't measure up. The cats don't appear remorseful to me. They look brazen. Defiant. But maybe I'm just projecting my own feelings onto them. You be the judge as to whether this kitty feels bad: 

Right. I didn't think so. 
How about you? Do you use (or like to read about) animals in your mysteries? Do they express human emotions?


Kathleen Ernst said...

I love the pictures of the guilty puppies! :>)

I feel empathy for a protagonist who loves animals--that says good things. As long as it's not too over-the-top (diamond-studded collars).

Beth Groundwater said...

I like to read about animals in mysteries, but it wasn't until I gave one of my protagonist's a pet dog that I realized what complications it presented. I had to make sure that she was a good dog owner and fed and watered and played with her dog periodically in between doing her job and trying to figure out whodunnit. It let to some timeline juggling, but I think it was worth it!

cncbooks said...

I know a lot of readers don't like attaching human attributes to animals but I can't help loving it and BELIEVING it---I know exactly when my cat has done something she shouldn't because she suddenly becomes uninterested in what's going on around her. I also have a squirrel in my yard who appears to make sure we're watching before he makes a magnificent leap at the bird feeder ;-)