IN THE 1980s, Hal Herzog often stuck his finger into the cages of baby snakes to see how often he was bitten. It was part of a test he had devised to measure the agreeableness of garter snakes – and some were definitely more aggressive than others. Herzog, now a psychologist at Western Carolina University in North Carolina, knew he was studying animal personality, but at that time it was controversial. “I did not have the moral fortitude to announce that in scientific journals,” he says.
Herzog is the first guest on a new podcast called Anthropomania, which sets out to explore the complex relationship humans have with other living things. For example, personality, the focus of the first episode, was once thought to be unique to humans. Today, it is accepted that animals of the same species living in the same conditions have different characters and behaviours, some bolder and others more fearful, for instance. Herzog says he now wouldn’t hesitate to describe his snake research as a study of personality.
The podcast, hosted by science communicators Jay Ingram, Niki Wilson and Erika Siren, is inspired by anthropomorphism, the attribution of human characteristics or behaviours to other species. When it comes to personality, people often apply human traits to animals, with one survey showing that many pet owners consider their animals to have a good sense of humour. “Going overboard on their humanness may give us an unrealistic picture of what they really are,” says Ingram.
The show highlights our various motivations for engaging with animals. Aside from research, some people want to domesticate or protect animals, and some collect rare and dangerous species to flaunt their wealth and power.
There are many consequences. The demand for exotic pets fuels a multibillion-dollar trafficking industry. And many parts of the world lack animal ownership laws, so animals can be neglected or even become invasive in non-native countries, as in the case of the hippos that escaped from drug lord Pablo Escobar’s private zoo. Many now live in Colombia’s waterways.
As more exotic animals become celebrities on social media, the podcast’s hosts hope this will educate people rather than just entertain them. Ingram worries that the desire to own and see novel beasts may lead people to create cross-breeds with no regard for welfare. White tigers, for example, are bred for their looks although inbreeding often causes health problems.
Our relationship with plants can also be human-centred. In an episode called Smarty Plants, the hosts look at how plants have been perceived over time. Research shows that plants communicate with each other and even learn, but whether that means they are intelligent is still a moot point.
According to guest Jack Schultz, a plant researcher at the University of Missouri, the problem is we think that a human nervous system is required for complex abilities. However, plants and even bacteria appear to “solve” problems, and they can acquire information and respond to their environment in an appropriate way, he says.
While Anthropomania‘s episodes are only about 30 minutes long, each packs in lots on a single topic. The podcast is thought-provoking, engaging and explores different perspectives. I’m hooked!
Sandrine Ceurstemont is a science and technology writer based in Morocco
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