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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.

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