The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine


Good Grief, Skip! Murder, Mourning, or Anthropomorphism?

Jan. 17, 2016 by | Comments (14)
Skippy the bush kangaroo

Giving Skippy human like expressions and agency was more fantasy than fact.

If you’re over the age of thirty and grew up in Australia, there’s a good chance you know who Skippy is. This famous kangaroo—a friend ever true—was the Aussie equivalent of Lassie, forever helping her human companion, Sonny Hammond, get in and out of trouble.

With their upright stance and small hands, kangaroos are readily anthropomorphised. That is to say, it’s easy to attribute kangaroos with human-like traits. Just recently, a heart-breaking story of a kangaroo mourning a lost companion did the rounds through Australian social media. Photographer Evan Switzer chanced upon a dying female kangaroo being cradled in the forearms of a male, a small joey standing nearby.

“He would lift her up and she wouldn’t stand she’d just fall to the ground, he’d nudge her, stand besides her…it was a pretty special thing, he was just mourning the loss of his mate,” Evan was reported saying in the Daily Mail.

Only the kangaroo wasn’t mourning for its departed mate. It was…well, for a lack of a better term, turned on. Sexually. And might have even been the murderer.

To be fair, while probably more accurate than a kangaroo funeral, such a poetic description itself falls foul of anthropomorphising the situation. Mourning, desiring, murdering … all of these things are relatable given human experience and storytelling. There are connotations we add to these words that imply characteristics unlikely to be experienced by kangaroos, such as agency and social emotions.

A far more appropriate description of the scene robs it of love, hatred, compassion, or lust.

Sydney University senior lecturer in veterinary pathology Dr Derek Spielman told the Australian Guardian, “Pursuit of these females by males can be persistent and very aggressive to the point where they can kill the female. That is not their intention but that unfortunately can be the result, so interpreting the male’s actions as being based on care for the welfare of the female or the joey is a gross misunderstanding, so much so that the male might have actually caused the death of the female.”

Evan’s error was a simple one, and one we all make. Our brains evolved to be social organs; just as we see faces in clouds, seeing a death scene as a lover is cradled in the arms of a sad-looking boomer is a natural effect of social wiring.

That isn’t to say we’re always wrong in our interpretation of animal behaviours. Adult cats have learned to vocalise for humans, for instance, having learned to manipulate our tendency to associate sounds with speech. The domestication of dogs has also enhanced human traits, such as using eye contact to communicate.

Yet determining what is our social bias and what is a legitimate reflection of a human-like experience or behaviour is challenging, and requires precise, objective language. Pain is a word that carries a great deal of cultural baggage. For humans, the experience of pain is more than a neurological response accompanied by a flood of stress hormones. It involves temporal awareness, self-awareness, a concept of damage. It might not be a great stretch to imagine another great ape experiencing human-like pain, but what of a mouse? A fish? A lobster? A fly?

Given decisions we make on the ethical treatment of animals in our care, such as culling back kangaroo populations near and within urban areas, accurately understanding their behaviour and experiences on their own terms is important. As is knowing what our own cultural values are when it comes to animals being animals, and not people.

As for Skippy, she’ll always have a special place in Australian’s hearts as the world’s most intelligent marsupial.

Mike McRae

Mike McRae is an Australian science writer and teacher. He has worked for the CSIRO’s education group and developed resources for the Australian government, promoting critical thinking and science education through educational publications. His 2011 book Tribal Science: Brains, Beliefs and Bad Ideas explored humanity’s development to think scientifically—and pseudoscientifically—about the universe. Read Mike’s other posts on this blog.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Get eSkeptic

Be in the know!

Subscribe to eSkeptic: our free email newsletter and get great podcasts, videos, reviews and articles from Skeptic magazine, announcements, and more in your inbox twice a week. It’s free. We never share your address. Unsubscribe any time.

Sign me up!


Skeptic cover art by Pat Linse

Art of the Skeptic

In celebration of Skeptic magazine’s 100th issue, we present sage graphic art advice for skeptical groups and a gallery of art reflecting more than 47 years of skeptical activism from Skeptic’s long time Art Director, Pat Linse

Detecting Baloney

Baloney Detection Kit Sandwich (Infographic) by Deanna and Skylar (High Tech High Media Arts, San Diego, CA)

The Baloney Detection Kit Sandwich (Infographic)

For a class project, a pair of 11th grade physics students created the infographic shown below, inspired by Michael Shermer’s Baloney Detection Kit: a 16-page booklet designed to hone your critical thinking skills.

FREE PDF Download

Wisdom of Harriet Hall

Top 10 Things to Know About Alternative Medicine

Harriet Hall M.D. discusses: alternative versus conventional medicine, flu fear mongering, chiropractic, vaccines and autism, placebo effect, diet, homeopathy, acupuncture, “natural remedies,” and detoxification.

FREE Video Series

Science Based Medicine vs. Alternative Medicine

Science Based Medicine vs. Alternative Medicine

Understanding the difference could save your life! In this superb 10-part video lecture series, Harriet Hall M.D., contrasts science-based medicine with so-called “complementary and alternative” methods.

FREE PDF Download

Top 10 Myths of Terrorism

Is Terrorism an Existential Threat?

This free booklet reveals 10 myths that explain why terrorism is not a threat to our way of life or our survival.

FREE PDF Download

The Top 10 Weirdest Things

The Top Ten Strangest Beliefs

Michael Shermer has compiled a list of the top 10 strangest beliefs that he has encountered in his quarter century as a professional skeptic.

FREE PDF Download

Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future (paperback cover)

Who believes them? Why? How can you tell if they’re true?

What is a conspiracy theory, why do people believe in them, and can you tell the difference between a true conspiracy and a false one?

FREE PDF Download

The Science Behind Why People See Ghosts

The Science Behind Why People See Ghosts

Mind altering experiences are one of the foundations of widespread belief in the paranormal. But as skeptics are well aware, accepting them as reality can be dangerous…

FREE PDF Download

Top 10 Myths About Evolution

Top 10 Myths About Evolution (and how we know it really happened)

If humans came from apes, why aren’t apes evolving into humans? Find out in this pamphlet!

FREE PDF Download

Learn to be a Psychic in 10 Easy Lessons

Learn to do Psychic “Cold Reading” in 10
Easy Lessons

Psychic readings and fortunetelling are an ancient art — a combination of acting and psychological manipulation.

FREE PDF Download

The Yeti or Abominable Snowman

5 Cryptid Cards

Download and print 5 Cryptid Cards created by Junior Skeptic Editor Daniel Loxton. Creatures include: The Yeti, Griffin, Sasquatch/Bigfoot, Loch Ness Monster, and the Cadborosaurus.

Copyright © 1992–2022. All rights reserved. | P.O. Box 338 | Altadena, CA, 91001 | 1-626-794-3119. The Skeptics Society is a non-profit, member-supported 501(c)(3) organization (ID # 95-4550781) whose mission is to promote science & reason. As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases. Privacy Policy.