When interacting with animals, it is tempting to correlate their behaviors with human emotion. It allows us to empathize with animals in a way that would be impossible otherwise, which is why researchers like Charles Hockett and Michael Tomasello spend so much time and effort studying animal communication and, more specifically, why animals are unable to learn human language. The downsides to crediting animals with human emotions, such as misattribution and devalorization of the animals’ own emotions, pale in comparison to the benefits we can receive from doing so, both socially and individually. As we can see from the short story “The Buffalo” by Clarice Lispector, anthropomorphizing animals affords us a stronger empathic connection with them, which can help us better understand ourselves and our emotions.
Giving animals credit for human emotions allows us to empathize with them. The woman in “The Buffalo” longs to empathize with an animal, one who can “teach her to keep her own hatred. . . .which belonged to her by right but which she could not attain in grief” (Lispector, 1972: p. 152). As a recently devastated woman, all she wants to do is loathe the man who broke her heart, but she is unable to do so because of her undeniable love for him. She believes that an animal can best demonstrate the feeling she cannot find on her own. When she comes across the buffalo, she is finally able to understand the feeling of hatred within her, because the buffalo’s passivity reflects her subconsciously projected emotions. In doing this, she is able to empathize with the animal and learn more about herself.
Just as the woman in the story found hatred through the buffalo, so can we also use animals to understand ourselves. In fact, the misattribution of human emotions to animals is often more about self-discovery than forming intimate empathic relationships with an animal itself. By projecting our emotions, especially subconsciously, on an unsuspecting animal, we can see them more clearly laid out for us to assess. Hatred and anger, of course, are easy to project, but other feelings such as yearning, sadness, and love can all be found through animals, by using them as a mirror to objectively view one’s inner emotions.
This anthropomorphizing actually leads to a sort of demeaning, however. By using an animal to reflect human emotions, it becomes a tool instead of a living creature. An animal’s own emotions are discounted, in favor of our dictated replacements. For example, it could be argued that in the story “The Buffalo,” the buffalo’s entire character is completely irrelevant. The woman, who has recently had her heart broken, isn’t looking for an intimate relationship with an animal. Instead she is looking for an outlet, a means to describe the emotions she knows she should feel but isn’t feeling. The buffalo gives her this, but it isn’t vital that it is a buffalo. However, in the story, the buffalo’s passivity makes it possible for her to define that...