“I never thought hyenas essential
They’re crude and unspeakably plain
But maybe they’ve a glimmer of potential
If allied to my vision and brain”
– Scar, The Lion King
Grinning ear to ear, the wily-eyed canines of Walt Disney’s cartoon savanna evince maniacal joy as they dance and cackle. The trio of hyenas—Shenzi, Banzai, and Ed, henchmen to chief antagonist Scar—never fail to rile youngsters who watch this animated classic. The crazy dogs terrified me for years and permanently shaped my view on the hyena as an animal. They impressed their creepy-goofiness upon me so much that I was shocked to discover the classic hyena laugh is not actually an expression of mirth—and real hyenas’ eyeballs don’t madly roll around in their sockets, either.
At first glance, this may seem an innocuous observation, but the trope of hyenas as presented in The Lion King is the result of misinterpreted and mischaracterized animal conduct. It’s a product of one of the most fraught terms in the study of animal behavior: anthropomorphism.
Anthropomorphism is the act of imparting something (often an animal) with human characteristics. With hyenas, anthropomorphization reveals itself in their hysterical cackling and deranged demeanor. Beyond Disney classics, instances of anthropomorphic description can be found in poetry, literature, and even scientific research. In Ted Hughes’ poem “The Jaguar,” he describes parrots who “shriek as if they were on fire, or strut / Like cheap tarts to attract the stroller with the nut.” Once again, this description is likely a gross mischaracterization of the parrot’s shriek, one that could just as easily be of joy as of pain. Anthropomorphization often drastically and comically misrepresents animal behavior and has long been condemned by scientists who describe it as a bane to the objective nature of empirical research.
Is it always wrong to use anthropomorphic rhetoric to compare animals with ourselves? Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal would say no. De Waal believes that, given an appropriate ecological understanding, ascribing human traits to animals can actually be beneficial to our understanding of their behavior. In his book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? he reflects on the example of apes kissing:
“Dubbing an ape’s kiss “mouth-to-mouth contact” so as to avoid anthropomorphism deliberately obfuscates the meaning of the behavior. It would be like assigning Earth’s gravity a different name than the moon’s, just because we think Earth is special.”
To call apes’ lip-locking anything other than a kiss not only inhibits our ability to fully grasp the meaning of the behavior, but is also fundamentally human-biased. It reserves the term kissing for humans, drawing a strict line between us and the rest of the animal kingdom, and placing us at the center of the universe.
Animal lovers and evolutionary behaviorists need a Copernican turn—a shift away from anthropocentrism toward an endeavor to level with animals. This begins with our language. Anthropomorphic description, while sometimes detrimental to understanding, can be used in appropriate contexts to help us find common ground with our fellow creatures.
When we open ourselves to the possibility that animals may share aspects of our behavior, we may discover that we have much more in common with animals than expected. Science discovers more of these commonalities all the time, with evidence of long-term problem solving, creativity, and empathy in various species. Among mammals, we share such similar brain structures that it’s difficult to even conceive we could be so different. By bringing animals into the depths of our descriptive world in both scientific research and literary representation, we can empathize with them.
In his essay “The Lives of Animals,” John Coetzee reflects on Hughes’ jaguar poem.
“Hughes is feeling his way toward a different kind of being-in-the-world, one which is not entirely foreign to us … In these poems we know the jaguar not from the way he seems but from the way he moves. The body is as the body moves, or as the currents of life move within it. The poems ask us to imagine our way into that way of moving, to inhabit that body.”
The consequences of this new animal rhetoric are palpable. Our connection with other living beings is human at its core; it relies on anthropomorphism. How else can we relate to animals than by seeing ourselves in them?