Empathy and Anthropomorphism

These two, for me, have very different meanings.  However, for same people, the lines are blurred.  Yesterday, Bat Cat, (the kitten who is currently allowing me to share her space and wisdom) reminded me.

Her life, to a degree, revolves around food.  And bugs.  And getting into trouble.  As a tiny baby, she got milk from a syringe, progressed to two tiny ketchup serving dishes, and then, last month (when I decided she was actually going to survive) I bought her three very kitsch, shiny plastic dishes.  Purple for water, yellow for biscuits and green for squishy.  This past week, she kind of stopped eating her squishy meat.  She seemed well, playful, happy, but not eating meat.  Biscuits yes, but half the time she spills then out of her bowl, then chases and hunts them, adding to the fun.  Then, it dawned on me, as I watched her picking at her breakfast.  The bowl is high and narrow.  Now her head is cat size, not kitten size, it must be hard to get her head down to eat, without rubbing her whiskers.  I bought her a flatter saucer yesterday, and guess what? She ravenously attacked her squishy meat.

When I went to the shop, the people I was with laughed when I told them that Bat didn’t like her bowl – honestly, that cat is spoilt.  If I’d said she didn’t like the colour, yes.  But, watching her trying to fit her whiskers in…  Imagine trying to cut your food with a knife, if the handle rubbed your hand?  We could have gone through buying different types of meat, cooking chicken, vet check, vitamin injection, when all she needed was a better shaped plate.    That’s empathy – understanding how a person or an animal might be feeling physical, emotional or mental stress, discomfort, joy, hunger, grief…  Understanding, and empathising that the bowl must be catching on her whiskers.

Anthropomorphism is a very different.  It’s giving an animal human emotion.  If I’d said, Bat doesn’t like her bowl because it’s green, and we don’t like green, or, she wants to have something new, that’s anthropomorphism.  “A horse must live in a stable in winter to keep him warm, cosy, dry… I wouldn’t like to be outside, poor pony doesn’t, either.”  Most horses, given adequate hay and a rug / winter coat / open field shelter, are far happier and healthier living out.  Given the choice, they only come inside during the heat of the day to avoid flies.  But, we see a thick straw bed and feel happy, so our horses must agree.  A horse sees confinement in a cage, the loss of freedom and choice if we are empathetic to his needs.  We see comfort, and impose that, and again, that is anthropomorphism.

I was also reminded, explaining to a young volunteer recently, how horses get flooded by too much stress and shut down, how to read the warning body language, and how to help them back from learned helplessness.  It always surprises me when people don’t just know – and it’s something I need to be more aware of….  “This horse is naughty….”  No, really, truly, he isn’t, he’s stressed or scared, asking for time and empathy.

Touch is vital for horses - they communicate between themselves through body language as well as all the other six senses, but touch is for companionship, friendship and bonding.
Touch is vital for horses – they communicate between themselves through body language as well as all the other six senses, but touch is for companionship, friendship and bonding.

In a few of the yards where I have worked, we’ve welcomed school groups, some very young (4, 5, 6-year olds) and I always seemed to end up showing these groups around.  It’s pretty scary, being a knee high 5-year-old and looking at a big old horse, with enormous teeth, bearing down on you.  I figured out the best strategy.  I’d pull out the oldest, sweetest, hopefully small pony, who would happily sleep for an hour.  Once pony was parked, I’d sit cross legged on the floor next to the pony, (yes I know, health and safety – it’s as scary, being talked at by a big, tall, scary foreigner, as being by the pony, the most important thing for me, is getting to eye level with the kids, to help them talk WITH me, and regain a little bit of their confidence) and we’d look, really look, at the pony.

Put your hand in front of your nose, can you feel your breath?  Who wants to put their hand in front of Dex’s nose and feel his breath?  Can you all see his nose move? See his ribs move?  Put your hand on your ribs, feel how they move too?  Ponies breathe just like us!

Who wants to go stand over there and clap their hands?  See how, when little Johnny claps, Dex lifted his head and moved his ears forwards?  He hears, just like you!  Who wants to feel Dex’s ears as he’s moving them back and forth?

Who wants to feel how soft his nose is? Feel his whiskers?  His whiskers are his extra eyes, to feel things in the dark and know where he might bump his nose…  Hold you hand out like this.  Move towards the wall, without looking…  Feel when your fingers bump into the wall?  That is how Dex’s whiskers work…

This is called a stethoscope, it’s magic because you can hear your heart….  We can take some turns, who wants to hear their heart? And then, once you’ve heard the lub dub of your heart, can you hear Dex’s heart?

Feel how, when you lie your arm over Dex’s neck / shoulders just here, he likes it, goes more relaxed?  That’s where his mom would have rested over him when he was a baby, it makes him feel safe.

Scratch him here, on this part called his withers.  See his nose wriggling?  How he wants to scratch you back? That’s how he’s making friends with you…

This is the famous Dex, on one of our school group tours.  How do you say thank you to your pony?  You give him a great big hug....  You don't want to hug him?  It's OK, I'll hug him for you...
This is the famous Dex, on one of our school group tours. How do you say thank you to your pony? You give him a great big hug…. You don’t want to hug him? It’s OK, I’ll hug him for you…

And guess what?  The twinkles are enthralled and forget to be scared, because the pony is just like them in so many ways.  We teach empathy, we teach respect, we teach them that ponies are sentient beings.  Isn’t that better than saying, yes, Star loves his green blanket, just like you love your green socks….  Anthropomorphism has little place in learning to understand and truly respect your four-legged friends….

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