Often, once folks learn that I work at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Queens Zoo and am someone who appreciates animals, they want to share their animal stories with me.
Usually, they will tell me about a quirky behavior of their own pets. (“My cat yowls and yowls until I give her fresh water even if the bowl is already full.). Or they’ll talk about something they saw an animal at the zoo do. (“I saw a monkey actually kiss its baby.)
Almost always, the behaviors that people find most interesting and are most excited about are those behaviors that reflect personality. People never seem to get tired of hearing about behaviors that show animals are more than furry creatures sitting around with nothing to do but eat and not get eaten.
They are fascinated by any animal that exhibits personality.
According to the Random House dictionary (yes, I still use a dictionary), the first definition of personality is “the visible aspect of one’s character as it impresses others.”
So, what people really want to see is the character behind the animals. They want to know that they are individuals that have variety and can be, in some ways, personable.
But that has me thinking: Why is it that we want animals to be person-like?
Don’t most of us have enough to do dealing with other people’s behavior already? Why are we so interested in non-human animal personalities, when we are not necessarily interested in human personalities? It’s a conundrum.
I think I have it figured out. I could be wrong, but bear with me.
In my opinion, people are fascinated by animal behavior for the same reason that there is so much fascination with the search for extraterrestrial life. The search for life on other planets is trying to prove the same thing as the people who tell me stories of how their parrot can tell when they are packing for a trip without them, or when someone tells me that their rabbit likes to watch television.
They are trying to prove what I have come to believe is a very fundamental need of the human species: The belief that we are not alone.
I am not a psychologist or sociologist. I am just a guy who likes animals. So I can’t say why we humans need to prove that there are other beings with personality living besides people. Maybe it makes us feel less lonely to think that there are more living, feeling, thinking beings out there besides people.
Or maybe it makes us feel that we are vindicated in our love of our pets or other animals that we see when we feel that they can also possess those traits that we value so highly in other people. I really don’t know.
But I do know that seeing proof that non-human animals have personalities is important to a lot of people. If you doubt it, just go to any zoo exhibit and listen to the people watching the animals. The animals may be big, they may be beautiful, or they may even be bizarre looking, but if they animals are active (and even if they are not), the conversation amongst the visitors will most likely be about the animal’s personality.
People usually feel pretty good after visiting the zoo. I think one reason they do is because they leave the zoo feeling like we are not alone.