Visible Phantoms

Animals are . . . the visible phantoms of our souls. --Victor Hugo

Cats and monkeys, monkeys and cats--all human life is there. --Henry James (The Madonna of the Future)

Many primatologists have experienced a profound change in their attitude towards anthropoid apes after making eye contact with one for the first time. The spark across the species barrier is never forgotten. --Frans De Waal (Waal and Lanting 1997:1)

Signal. A message emitted by the nonverbal behavior, cries, markings, body movements, or shapes of an organism of the kingdom Animalia (see EFFERENT CUE).

Usage: Animals provide an endless source of inspiration for artists, philosophers, photographers, and cinematographers. They are a major source of companionship, entertainment, symbolism, and food for all human beings.

Word origin. The word animal comes from the ancient Indo-European root ane-, derivatives of which include anima, equanimity, and unanimous.

Animal crackers. Our fascination with animals is reflected in the 53 different caged animal species which have occupied Barnum's Animal Cracker boxes for the past 100 years (Frey 2001). "Looking for a special Christmas promotion, National Biscuit executives came up with the idea of specially designed red and green boxes with a circus theme. And thinking that the boxes would make fine Christmas tree ornaments, they added the little string--to make it easier to hang the box on a tree limb, of course" (Frey 2001).

Anthropology I. There is a curious ambivalence between Homo sapiens and all other species. On the one hand, we find compelling similarities between ourselves and beasts. Yet on the other, a cultural universal of human thought is the postulate that people and animals are fundamentally un-alike. Between the human and the animal lies an immense chasm.

Anthropology II. We find animals spiritually, intellectually, and morally inferior to ourselves. Greek philosophers despised beasts for their lack of reason. Today's Christians deny animals a soul, yet portray the Holy Ghost as a winged member of the Columbidae family (i.e., as a dove). Hindus believe all creatures are divine, but see hoofed animals of the Bovidae family (i.e., sacred cattle) as more divine than others. Muslims picture all animals as being lower than humans. Buddhists think animals, as well as humans, are ultimately unreal.

Anthropology III. We attribute animal characteristics to ourselves. Zoomorphism is a popular theme of greeting cards, e.g., which liken friends and family members to cuddly kittens, bunnies, and bears. The Zuni Indians of New Mexico compare strong-willed men to black bears (Cushing 1883).

Anthropology IV. The earliest animal art--naturalistic renderings of deer, horses, and bulls--appears in the archaeological record ca. 30,000 years ago in western Europe. The Upper Paleolithic cave paintings of Cro Magnon man reveal that hunter-gatherers incorporated animals into their thought processes and rituals at least 30 millennia ago.

Anthropology V. We purchase an estimated 500,000 plastic pink flamingo ornaments for our lawns each year (Conn and Silverman 1991:42).

Beauty. While we overestimate the number of useful and attractive birds, butterflies, and mammals on earth, we underestimate the much larger population of unlovely insects, spiders, bats, bacteria, and worms (May 1992:42).

Cats. The first commercial software designed for nonhuman animals may be a video game called "CyberPounce." In Cyberpounce, virtual flies, fish, and mice entice the paw-batting instincts of house cats, who "hunt" for the video images on a screen. "He [CyberPounce creator, Matt Wolf] learned that cats can recognize activity on a television screen or computer monitor, but most programming designed for humans doesn't titillate them. Cats fixate on an object's color and movement patterns rather than its shape, he said" (Krane2001:A6; Author's note: cats are colorblind).

Courtship. Courting couples of the 17th century carried flea boxes, in which they collected the bodies of the dead arthropods they had picked off each other's skin (Dean 1982).

Dislike. According to the Nature Conservancy, our least-liked mammal is the rat (Anonymous 1990).

Dogs. We design exotic consumer products for Canis familiaris. A 25-ounce bottle of Mon Chien, e.g., contains water and ground-beef flavoring (for dogs who may turn up their noses at drinking from Homo sapiens's toilet). At Fido's Fast Food, a converted Fotomat drive-through in Toledo, Ohio, dogs may dine on crunchy "cheeseburgers" and peanut-butter bagels (Anonymous 1992C).

Fear. We fear wild animals more than "safer" domestic breeds. Yet while millions are afraid of sharks, e.g., only six people in the U.S. have been killed by sharks since 1988 (Conn and Silverman 1991:197). We fear dogs less, even though half of all U.S. children will be bitten by a dog by age 12 (Rovner 1992). (N.B.: Each year shying horses kill and wound more humans than all wild animals combined.)

Gorillas. We are fascinated by "humanlike" mannerisms of gorillas (Gorilla gorilla). Gorilla groupies, e.g., sit for hours patiently watching lowland gorillas (G. g. berengei) at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. As one man remarked, watching gorillas "is the happiest thing I've done with my spare time" (Mundy 1992). The peak experience of a gorilla groupie is sharing eye contact with the apes.

Media. 1. The first TV star was not a human being but a doll-sized replica of Felix the Cat, used in the 1920s as a test pattern (Marschall 1986:13). 2. "Body hair is a remnant of our primeval animal self and, in evolutionary history, our human bodies are slowly losing their hair as we move away from the animal realm where we were open to nature" (Camille Paglia quoted in the Washington Post [Folliard 1995:E5]).

Size. 1. As large-bodied animals ourselves (i.e., as megafauna), we consider much smaller creatures unworthy of humane treatment. The U.S. Animal Welfare Act of 1971, e.g., does not apply to laboratory rats, mice, or birds (Anonymous 1992D). 2. As animals with backbones, we discriminate against much smaller invertebrates. Few high-school teams, e.g., choose insects as mascots, despite the fact that insects outweigh all of earth's vertebrates combined, nine-to-one (Holden 1989:754). 3. The smallest animal sculpture (of "Tiny" the Bull) is a plastic rendering by scientists in Japan which measures ca. 10 microns from horns to tail (about the size of a red blood cell; Anonymous 2001M).

Space. Nearing completion of her five-month mission in orbit (from March to August 2001), international-space-station resident Susan Helms "misses animals almost more than anything" (Anonymous 2001J:A7). "'It's really strange not to see animals for such a long period of time, [I] hadn't realized what an important part of our lives animals are,' she said in an interview" (Anonymous 2001J:A7).

Speech. In the U.S., 90% of pet owners speak to their dogs, cats, and birds (Wolkomir 1984). (N.B.: According a study at Utah State University, 73% think their pets talk back [Wolkomir 1984].)

Neuro-notes I. According to PET imaging studies, animal picture identification activates both the right and left occipital region (specifically, right and left lingual gyrus and left fusiform gyrus [Perani et al. 1999]). (Artifact picture identification, on the other hand, activates only the left brain hemisphere [Perani et al. 1999].)

Neuro-notes II. Mirror neurons: Cells in the human brain's superior temporal sulcus (STS) respond selectively to "biological motion"--to distinctive body movements of animals such as walking, running, throwing, and leaping. "Point-light" research reveals that we can decode such actions from a very small number of cues. Our ability to decode these animate actions from minimal cues is likely due to mirror neurons (Ulloa, E. R., and J. A. Pineda (2007). "Recognition of Point-light Biological Motion: Mu Rhythms and Mirror Neuron Activity," in Behavioural Brain Research, Vol. 183, No. 2, Nov. 2, pp. 188-94). For information on point-light studies, see "Perception of Biological Motion."

See also TREE SIGN,

YouTube Video: There are more signs in this animal's display than you can count . . .

Copyright 1998 - 2016 (David B. Givens/Center for Nonverbal Studies)
Photo of "Night Invaders" (Spokane, Washington, USA) by Doreen K. Givens (copyright 2007)