The images have been excruciating: a mother orca periodically surfacing off the Pacific Northwest coast with the body of her dead calf nestled atop her own, seemingly unable to accept the irreversible, biological fact of her loss. Tahlequah, as the mother orca is known, was most recently spotted on Thursday—more than two weeks after giving birth, and still carrying the limp, lifeless baby with her.
Tahlequah’s act of mourning is a private one. She can’t possibly know that millions of people are watching and mourning along with her, their hearts breaking anew with each sighting of the grief-dazed mother and her lost calf. Nevertheless, we can’t help but sense a performative, or even remonstrative, aspect to her grief. Tahlequah’s baby entered this world emaciated, lacking enough blubber to survive in the water for more than half an hour. In this way, the calf was emblematic of her critically endangered family of Puget Sound orcas, all of whom are facing a multitude of threats, most notably a sharp decline in the availability of Chinook salmon, their primary source of food. To many of us, Tahlequah’s display feels like an accusation: See? Do you finally see what’s happening to us? Will this get your attention, if nothing else will?
When the Seattle Times asked its readers how the story of Tahlequah was affecting them personally, more than 1,000 people responded with testimonies, poems, even a ballet. Many of those responding had lost a child of their own and acknowledged feeling a sort of spiritual kinship with the mother orca. One commenter shared her belief that Tahlequah was trying to tell us something—and urged us to listen. “It’s terribly upsetting and yet at the same time uplifting,” she told the newspaper. “I think the orca family is doing this to bring attention to their plight. They are very intelligent. I hope humans care enough and find a way to restore their natural wild salmon resource. It’s the right thing to do.”
Our tendency to anthropomorphize animals—to ascribe to them human characteristics, behaviors, and motivations—is as ancient as storytelling. The myths that have built and sustained our cultures are filled with sentient animals whose interactions with humans and other creatures are meant to illustrate important lessons. A cunning, conniving serpent makes a brief yet pivotal cameo in the very first book of the Bible. Neither Aesop’s fables nor Grimm’s fairy tales would have worked without contributions from a menagerie of beasts that reasoned, spoke, and got themselves into and out of all kinds of trouble.
Clearly we anthropomorphize animals in order to better understand ourselves. Instilling nonhuman creatures with human traits helps us to comprehend and process our own behavior. But what does it do for animals? Does it help or harm other species when we think of them as being more—as opposed to less—like us?
Researchers have only begun to study the links between anthropomorphism and conservation behavior. But studies from earlier in the decade are suggestive. In one of them, published in 2013 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, the authors conducted three experiments that examined how attributing human characteristics to certain elements of the natural world affected subjects’ feelings of empathic connection, as well as their inclination to act on such feelings. They concluded that “anthropomorphism of nature was associated with connectedness to nature, which in turn led to conservation behavior” across multiple dimensions.
A second study, published at about the same time in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation, came to a similar conclusion. “[A]nthropomorphism can be a means to accomplish the goals of conservation and management,” wrote author Alvin Chan of the University of California, Los Angeles. By highlighting the “analogous cognitive characteristics” between people and animals, he wrote, “anthropomorphism has the potential to help conservation biologists convince the public to help preserve natural biodiversity.”
But other researchers, while not dismissing these findings out of hand, have urged caution. Writing in the same journal as Chan the following year—and, seemingly, in response to him—a team of researchers led by the conservation scientist Meredith Root-Bernstein warned that “[l]imiting the use of anthropomorphism in conservation to prosocial, intelligent, suffering animals risks suggesting that other species are not worthy of conservation because they are not like humans in the ‘right’ ways.”
Researchers also point out what should seem obvious to anyone who has ever asked a small child to draw an animal and received in return a picture of a household pet or an example of charismatic megafauna, such as an elephant or a giraffe. Relying on the power of anthropomorphism to foster pro-conservation sentiment, they write, risks “overlooking the application of a powerful tool to the promotion of low-profile species with high biological conservation value.” It’s difficult, in other words, to anthropomorphize tiny krill. But krill are absolutely essential to the maintenance of our ocean ecosystems, and without them these ecosystems would collapse. Scientists are already sounding alarms about the overfishing of this keystone species and the destruction of its habitat from climate change.
Tahlequah’s mourning hits us so hard because we know that uniquely devastating pain must accompany the loss of a child. To the extent that we’ve anthropomorphized her response to this tragedy, we can indeed be said to be empathizing with her plight. But stopping there—at sadness—doesn’t do her or her dwindling pod of endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales any good. In her time of grief, the kindest things we could do for her and her kin would be to take steps to restore Chinook salmon populations in Washington State’s Columbia-Snake River Basin, and commit ourselves to working that much harder to protect orca habitat in general.
Let us allow this moment of cross-species connection, then, to spur us to action. Because as close as we may feel to Tahlequah right now, we’re actually completely different. For one thing, we have the power to change things for the other hungry mothers in her pod. She doesn’t.
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.