Patricia K. Anderson, PhD, IAABC CPBC on January 20, 2016
Westerners tend to increasingly treat their parrots and other pets as family members by including them in family holidays, outings, even weddings, and sometimes in their obituaries, should the pet outlive their owner, or in memorials when the pet dies. As nonhuman family members, scientific research demonstrates that animal companions may provide important social support. By elevating the pet to the status of a quasi-human, they may have access to the latest consumer trends in animal care products and veterinary medicine, their own designer clothing, and other attributes to which the well-meaning pet owner may have access. However, isn’t much of this anthropomorphism? Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human traits to animals or to objects. Parrots are charismatic, intelligent, sentient beings who are susceptible to being anthropomorphized by their owners. First words, potty training, bipedalism—really, aren’t they little people in feathers? Many pet owners might think so, and that is a problem.
Anthropomorphism is a trigger word in the sciences because it historically has been used to deny the scientific credibility of any animal cognition research. It has been assumed, that to anthropomorphize is to lose one’s objectivity, and to be seen as naïve and sentimental. We are reminded of the cautionary tale from 1904 Berlin of the Orlov Trotter horse, Hans. “Clever Hans” was credited with mathematical capabilities, until an observant scientist noted that Hans was responding to his owner’s body language instead of solving equations. Researchers are cautioned to make certain that they don’t fall prey to the “Clever Hans Phenomenon,” as did others duped by the horse’s alleged abilities.
We can take two lessons from the Hans case: We have to be careful not to read too much into the behavior we are observing, and secondly the animals we work with are very keen observers of human behavior. They are always learning from us, and we need to be conscious of subtle changes in their behavior and how our behavior may affect them. As verbal primates, it may be difficult for us to focus on what we see, instead of what we hear. And with parrots, because they have the ability to mimic human language, it is even more complex.
Do parrots have the ability to use human language cognitively? According to Dr. Irene Pepperberg’s studies, the answer is yes. Many parrot owners I surveyed during my research anecdotally state that their companion parrots use human language meaningfully, to request certain items, places, actions or people. As scientific research brings greater insight into the avian mind, we find that birds are capable of many complex behaviors thought to originally be limited to humans, including tool use, a system of communication (language?), regional dialects, and the use of unique vocalizations for conspecific family members (naming?). Although that is a different discussion, it is important as behavior consultants to note that many parrot owners do believe that their birds can use human language contextually.
In the past, researchers have been so concerned about the possibility of anthropomorphism and loss of scientific objectivity, that many extremists, in a Cartesian anti-mentalism, denied animals thoughts and emotions. However, more recent scientific research has demonstrated that animals are capable of having thought and emotion. But what they think and feel may be very different from what we imagine.
And this is where anthropomorphism can be problematic, especially when owners misinterpret their birds’ behavior and wrongly attribute human motives or emotions. These pronouncements are issued in the familiar labels against which Dr. Susan Friedman warns: “vicious”, “mean”, “hormonal”, “dominant”, and others. Studies of parrots, and other captive animals, suggest that most aggression is based in fear. Our companion parrots are not plotting to take over the world, beginning with us! Rather they may fear something the owner has done, the owner misses the communication that the parrot is uncomfortable with what the owner is requesting or has done, and are bitten as consequence.
Parrots have a different view of the world, because their senses are different and even superior to humans in some respects. As behavior consultants, we need to be mindful as new research emerges that may provide added insight into how these differences may affect their behavior and welfare in captivity.
Diet, is another concern, regarding anthropomorphism. Human obesity and pet obesity seem to go hand in paw or hand in wing, unfortunately. According to Dr. Laurie Hess, DVM DABVP (Avian) in a recent vetstreet.com post, parrots are the number one exotic pets prone to obesity. As members of our human families companion parrot owners may share foods that they routinely eat. Of greatest concern is the feeding of foods that may be harmful, or detract from parrots receiving proper nutrition from their standard diets. Quantity is another concern. A 100-gram (3.53 ounces) Quaker parrot is far smaller than the average 180 pound human! Obesity can lead to many serious health issues including a shortened life span.
In summary, anthropomorphism may potentially be positive, and welfare improved when the parrot is a cherished family member who provides important social support to their owner. However, anthropomorphism may also potentially lead to a misunderstanding of behavior, the feeding of an inappropriate diet, and its consequences: impaired avian welfare and damage to the human-avian bond.
Anderson, Patricia K. 2014. Social dimensions of the Human-Avian Bond: Parrots and their Persons. Anthrozoös. 27(3): 371-387.
Hess, Laurie. 2016. Most Common Obese Exotic Pets: No. 1 Parrots. http://www.vetstreet.com/our-pet-experts/most-common-obese-exotic-pets-no-1-parrots?Wt.mc_id=facebook