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Calling All Nemos: Using Human-like Animals for Conservation

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Smokey the Bear, Bambie, and Nemo- all of these fictitious animals have something in common. First, they are all anthropomorphized- they have the attribution of human characteristics, emotion, and behavior. Secondly, whether on purpose or not, they are part of a movement.

A recent theme has emerged in the fight for environmental conservation–using anthropomorphism as a tool to create human-animal relationships. In a study published in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation, researchers have identified the forms of anthropomorphism that both positively and negatively impact conservation strategies, and how groups and social movements can use them to promote conservation efforts.

Researchers identified several different perceived similarities with species, such as empathy, caring for young, and playing.

It is no secret that humans attach human characteristics to animals. The study notes that people construct anthropomorphic meanings around other species, especially pets. As stated in the study, “pet owners develop representations of what those pets like, want, understand, and have tendencies to do,” which would have outcomes like empathy for the pet’s feelings.  Through a sharing of experiences, people tend to develop an understanding of how other species react and feel (fear, playful, etc.).

But what has been rarely realized, as the study notes, is the power behind “anthropomorphized flagships,” or human-like mascots. Industries have utilized this–one example being the Coca-Cola polar bear, happily enticing children and adults to drink sugar-laden soft drinks for decades.

On the other hand, social marketers have used anthropomorphism to forward conservation messages. Smokey the Bear, as noted by the study, has been a huge success; a black bear in a Forest Ranger uniform with a clear-cut message (“Only YOU can prevent forest fires!”).  Not only did his human, guardian-like persona work, but Smokey worked a little too well, even preventing fires in ecosystems that needed regular burnings.

As is the case with Smokey, scientists noted that symbolic meanings can be strongly attached to animals that are given human characteristics, and go a long way in supporting a conservation message. What is significant is connecting human commonalities between people and animals.

“…As conservationists we can look at is as a kind of popular folk theory of the similarities between humans and all other species,” said lead author Meridith Root-Bernseitn to News Centre. “These popular ways of relating to the natural world are powerful and we should try to understand and work with them.”

A recent example can be drawn from the power of the Pixar’s “Finding Dory,” in which a script change occurred after the release of “Blackfish,” where the characters are given the option to leave the aquarium instead of stay in one. From “Finding Nemo,” people have already attached human characteristics (like caring for the young and friendship) to the characters in the films, which has given this film a power for marine conservation, whether intended or not. As a result, the sequel has been impacted by real-world conservation events that caused an important script-change.

As a conservation method, the study promotes discernment when using a strongly human-like animal symbol. As with Smokey, there can be additional ramifications (degradation of fire-dependent habitats, impact on bear conservation, etc.), that are not realized at the time. However, building a human-animal bond to endangered or threatened species can raise awareness and eventually help a species that is in need of protection and resources.

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