Anthropomorphism in literature: Can It Benefit Conservation?

While there is much debate about what an ideal human-animal relationship should look like, many writers, poets, conservationists and activists acknowledge—at a time when we are witnessing massive worldwide declines in species and biodiversity—we are not there yet. But can anthropomorphism—the attribution of human characteristics to animals—in literature, benefit wildlife conservation?

As scientists add to the weight of evidence suggesting we have underestimated animal minds, Rick Hodges, author of To Follow Elephants, sincerely hopes so.

Anthropomorphism has been used in the creation stories, myths, and parables of cultures all over the world for thousands of years. In an article for Medium, Rick, himself sites Richard Adams’ Watership Down as being one of his most inspirational reads. The novel’s refugee rabbits who are fleeing their destroyed home, join anthropomorphised characters Nemo, Simba and Bambi in exhibiting different characters, social order, politics and even their own language.

‘Animals don’t behave like men,’ he said. ‘If they have to fight, they fight; and if they have to kill they kill. But they don’t sit down and set their wits to work to devise ways of spoiling other creatures’ lives and hurting them. They have dignity and animality.’ ―Richard Adams, Watership Down.

In To Follow Elephants, elephant characters share with their offspring their tale of origin in an almost identical way to the religious tales of an African woman from the same region. As an author Rick tries to keep things ‘real’ while using his creative freedom.

‘I can still remember when Bigwig shouts, “Silflay hraka!” as he launches himself at the enemy,’ says Rick, of a pivotal moment in Watership Down. It was the first time in the book Adams hadn’t provided a footnote, but intrigued readers could work out that silflay meant to feed, and that hraka were droppings.

‘You can invent history or religion in a story, but I limit my creative expression within those facts readers already know,’ adds Rick. ‘For instance, if I’m writing a scene (no pun intended) with horses, I wouldn’t describe them as digging burrows or building log cabins, nor do they speak to humans.’

When portraying animals with human characteristics it is important the wider public develops an accurate understanding of wildlife in order to support conservation efforts. Hodges shows an understanding of this in how he describes the inner world of the elephants. The novel is based entirely on actual elephant behaviour and biology. Rick merely added what the elephants might say to each other if they could communicate with human-like language.

We particularly love the passage when the matriarch elephant in To Follow Elephants tells a youngster she is leading to a place that is part of their origin myth.

‘ “This is the place where we were created,” she told them in the dim light of the cave. “This is where the very first First Grandmother bore her nine daughters and led them out into the world, the ones who were the first mothers to all the elephants. They are the daughters who summoned nine bulls here to create the nine families of elephants that live today, including ours. This is where you came from.” ’―Rick Hodges, To Follow Elephants.

Given the current global conservation crisis, if portraying wildlife as though they have human emotions or characteristics can get people to better relate to them and develop empathy, then we think more authors should portray animals with this fine sense of fascination.

Donna Mulvenna and Margi Prideaux