Stereotypes of animals  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

When anthropomorphising a (non-human) animal there are stereotypical traits which commonly tend to be associated with particular species. Often these are simply exaggerations of real aspects or behaviours of the creature in question, while other times the stereotype is taken from mythology and the true origins are forgotten. Some are popularised or solidified by a single particularly notable appearance in media, for example Disney's 1942 film Bambi which portrayed the titular deer as an innocent, fragile animal. In any case, once they have entered the culture as widely-recognized stereotypes of animals, they tend to be used both in conversation and media as a kind of shorthand for expressing particular qualities.

While some authors make use of these animal stereotypes "as is", others undermine reader expectations by reversing them, developing the animal character in the exact opposite direction (e.g. a fastidious pig or a cowardly lion).

Many modern stereotypes of animals have a long tradition dating back to Aesop's Fables, which drew upon sources that included Ancient Egyptian animal tales. Aesop's stereotypes were so deeply ingrained by the time of Apollonius of Tyana that they were accepted as representative of various animals' "true" natures:

"And there is another charm about him, namely, that he puts animals in a pleasing light and makes them interesting to mankind. For after being brought up from childhood with these stories, and after being as it were nursed by them from babyhood, we acquire certain opinions of the several animals and think of some of them as royal animals, of others as silly, of others as witty, and others as innocent." --Flavius Philostratus

Contents

Discussion

It is important to note that many animal stereotypes reflect anthropomorphic notions which are unfair to impose upon actual animals in nature. Thus, while a shark is instinctively feeding in the way its nature intends, in folklore it tends to be classified as "cruel", a word which implies a conscious and immoral choice to cause unnecessary pain. Yet conscience and morality are metaphysical attributes which are imposed by humans and do not exist as such within the shark's world. Likewise, some stereotypes are based on mistaken or grossly oversimplified impressions, e.g. spotted hyenas are stereotypically portrayed as cowardly scavengers, but in reality they are efficient pack hunters with a complex social structure who care for their young.

Despite these considerations, the use of such animal stereotypes is generally much less problematic than it is for human stereotypes (to which some of the same issues apply), for obvious reasons.

Common Western animal stereotypes

Mammals

Bats

  • The bloodthirsty or evil bat
    • Among 1.000 species of bats, only 3 feed on blood. This stereotypical image is based on vampire stories.
    • Bats are often said to be blind, such as in the expression "as blind as a bat", when in reality bats are not blind, but have poor visual acuity.
    • Another stereotype associated with bats is that the animal will fly into your hair. This is an urban legend since bats can navigate very well in the dark thanks to their echolocation system.

Bears

Bulls

  • The aggressive bull who attacks everyone and everything with the color red
    • This stereotype can be found in many comic strips and cartoons and is based on bullfighting where the bullfighter taunts the bull by waving a small red cape (muleta). This has led to the urban legend that bulls will attack anything in the color red. In reality bulls are dichromatic and attack the waving cape instead of the color. The reason those capes have the color red is its association with blood and the tradition itself.

Cats

Dogs

Donkeys

Elephants

  • The unforgetting elephant
  • The mice-fearing elephant
    • Another popular misconception of elephants is that they fear mice, possibly thanks to cartoon depictions like Dumbo.

Foxes

Hippopotamuses

Horses

Hyenas

Kangaroos

Lemmings

  • The suicidal lemming
    • Lemmings tend to migrate in large numbers, which can include jumping off cliffs into the water and swimming great distances to the point of exhaustion and even death. However in these cases it's pure accidental and not intentionally trying to kill itself. Lemmings don't even deliberately throw themselves off cliffs. This stereotype was influenced by a Disney documentary, White Wilderness (1958) where the animals were chased off a cliff by the documentary makers, purely for some sensational images.

Lions

Mice

Moles

Moose

Pigs

  • The greedy and/or filthy pig
    • Both aspects are due to the natural pig lifestyle (when raised on a farm rather than a feedlot)—"greedy" from the way they devour any food put in front of them, "filthy" from the fact that a pig-sty is generally a soup of mud and feces which the pigs don't seem to mind at all (this also gives rise to the saying "Happy as a pig in shit").
    • The stereotype may also derive in part from Judeo-Islamic cultures, whose concepts of kosher/halal teach that pigs are "unclean" for various reasons.
    • Examples of greedy and filthy pigs: Napoleon and other pigs in Animal Farm
    • Pigs are also portrayed as straight men or sidekicks (for example Porky Pig and Orson (U.S. Acres))

Rabbits/Hares

Raccoons

  • The criminal or scavenging raccoon
    • From the bandit-like black "mask" over its eyes

Rats

Simians

Skunks

  • The smelly skunk
    • Chuck Jones' Pepé Le Pew is one of the best-known animated skunks and propagates the idea that the animals emit their scent continuously. Human characters often run in panic from the mere sight or smell of a skunk.

Sloths

  • The lazy sloth
    • Sloth, one of the seven deadly sins, meaning spiritual apathy.
    • Sid the prehistoric sloth in the Ice Age films is depicted as lively and fast-talking, in contrast to the stereotype.

Squirrels

Tigers

Weasels

Wolves

Birds

Chickens

Crows/Ravens

  • The ominous raven or crow
    • Ravens or crows often foretell death and destruction, as portrayed in Edgar Allan Poe's poem "The Raven." Also, in Celtic and Irish myths, goddesses of war often appeared in the form of a raven or crow. The stereotype of ravens portraying death could stem from the fact that they are often seen feasting on the gore of dead soldiers after battle.
  • The Afro-American crow
    • In the 19th and early 20th century white Americans often compared black people with crows, due to the black colour of the bird. Crows in these stereotypical depictions speak in jive.
    • Examples: Jim Crow, the crows in Dumbo, the comic strip and animated version of Fritz the Cat

Ducks

Eagles

Geese

Magpies

Ostriches

  • The nervous ostrich
    • Ostriches are often portrayed as being nervous and are widely thought to bury their heads in the sand at the first sign of danger. In reality this is not true; the ostrich is more likely to respond by fleeing, or, failing in that, delivering powerful kicks, easily capable of killing a man or a lion.

Owls

  • The wise owl
    • In Greek mythology, Athena is the goddess of wisdom and is regularly associated with the owl.
    • Other examples: The wise owls in Winnie the Pooh, The Animals of Farthing Wood, Guardians of Ga'Hoole, Bambi and The Sword in the Stone
    • Although owls are often associated with wisdom and intelligence this image is not timeless, nor universal. During the Middle Ages, owls were seen as dumb, stupid and evil helpers of witches. On many paintings of Hieronymus Bosch the bird can be seen as a symbol of stupidity and/or evil. The Dutch profanity word "uilskuiken" ("owl chick") is used to insult a stupid person and the Dutch saying "Wat baten kaars en bril als de uil niet zien wil?" ("What use are a candle and glasses if the owl refuses to see?") still reminds people of this totally opposite view of owls. In Asian culture owls are traditionally seen as dumb animals instead of symbols of wisdom.

Parrots

  • The talkative, annoying, and/or smartypants parrot/cockatoo (no distinction)

Peacocks

  • The proud peacock
    • From the saying: "as proud as a peacock".
    • Peacocks are often used as a symbol of vanity and pride.

Penguins

Pheasants

Storks

  • The baby-delivering stork
    • In western folklore, parents have told their children for centuries that babies are delivered by a stork. Examples can be found in the film Dumbo and Lambert the Sheepish Lion.

Reptiles and amphibians

Crocodiles

  • The weeping and hypocritical crocodile
    • Many political cartoons, legends and stories feature crocodiles who claim to be sad about someone else's grief and then cry fake tears as a result. This stereotype is based on the fact that in real life crocodiles can often be observed with teary eyes while they consume their dead prey. The reason for this behaviour lies is that crocodiles are unable to chew and thus forced to rip their food into chunks and swallow them whole. Since the glands that keep their eyes moist are right near their throats this eating habit actually forces them to produce tears. This observation lead humans to believe that crocodiles are crying about the death of the animal they hypocritically just killed themselves and created the expression "crying crocodile tears", which means that one shows emotions without really meaning it.
  • The villainous crocodile
    • Crocodiles are often cast as evil characters in stories, for example the crocodile in Peter Pan.

Dinosaurs

Frogs/Toads

Snakes

Turtles/Tortoises

Fish and sea mammals

Dolphins

Sharks

Whales

Invertebrates

Ants

  • The diligent ant
    • This stems mainly from a fable, The Ant and the Grasshopper, in which the ant works hard to prepare for the winter while the grasshopper wastes the summer and fall having fun, only to have to beg food from the ant or starve.
  • The militant ant
    • Ants, like many animals that form colonies or hives, are known for working together like an army. Some popular culture have the ants portray as military soldiers.
  • The thieving/ bothersome ant.
    • Ants are often portrayed stealing food from picnics, kitchens, etc. Examples can be found in many cartoons, like Tom & Jerry.

Bees

Crickets

  • The cricket who plays violin
    • Male crickets are known for the chirping sound they make. In some cultures this sound is seen as a sign of good luck, while in other cultures it is associated with bad luck. Some cartoons depict crickets as violinists because the movements they make to produce their chirping sound resemble someone playing a violin.

Grasshoppers

  • The lazy / carefree grasshopper
    • This stems mainly from a fable, The Ant and the Grasshopper, in which the ant works hard to prepare for the winter while the grasshopper wastes the summer and fall having fun, only to have to beg for food from the ant or starve. For this reason, grasshoppers are also sometimes characterized as social parasites (as in the Pixar movie A Bug's Life).
    • Ants, like most invertebrates, are known for working together like an army. Some popular culture have the ants portray as military soldiers.

Mantises

  • The patient mantis
    • Because mantises are able to wait for hours for food to approach them.

Spiders

Squid

Termites

  • The destructive termite
    • Because of the termite's reputation of eating wood and wrecking homes and buildings, which is greatly exaggerated in cartoons

Wasps

  • The wanton and vicious wasp
    • Wasps are often portrayed as deliberate stingers of humans.

Common East Asian animal stereotypes

Animal stereotypes in East Asian cultures (China, Japan, Korea, etc.) include:

  • The loyal / savage dog
    • While domesticated dogs were welcomed, wild dogs were dangerous to both humans and their cattle.
  • The royal elephant
    • Most notable in Thailand and India, elephants are symbols of royalty.
  • The proud horse
  • The thieving mouse
    • As a mouse was a common pest, they were likened to thieves. However, in Japanese tradition, a mouse also guarantees a good harvest.
  • The comical or lecherous octopus
  • The stupid / rich pig
  • The lucky / acquisitive cat
    • Cats are said to bring luck to business ventures. Many Japanese video games feature anthropomorphic cats ("neko") in mercantile roles (e.g. Squaresoft's Secret of Mana) as well.
  • The cute kitten
    • Catgirls occupy a niche in Japanese otaku culture, most often as females dressed to some degree as a humanoid with cat elements like cat ears and a tail.
  • The devoted / tricky rabbit
    • The former is from a Buddhist story where a rabbit offered itself as a gift to Buddha by leaping into a fire. In Kojiki, a white rabbit appears as a trickster. This is also due to the mythology of the rabbit in the moon.
    • In a Korean folktale, a wise rabbit rescues a man from a greedy, ungrateful tiger.
  • The friendly snakeTemplate:Citation needed
  • The proud tiger
  • The cruel tiger
    • The folktales about man-devouring tigers appear frequently in Korea. At times tigers can be gullible or loyal.
  • The wise and old turtle / tortoise
  • The protecting wolf
    • The wolf protected Japanese farmers crops from raiders.
  • The grateful/loyal magpie
    • In Korea, a magpie chirping near one's house indicates that long-anticipated guests are finally coming.
    • In one Korean folktale, a magpie sacrifices herself to save the man who rescued her chicks from a serpent.
  • In Japanese folklore, the kitsune and fox represent the trickster, similar to the jackal in Africa, or coyote and fox in North America.

Indian animal stereotypes

India has a rich tradition of animal stories and beast fables, including one of the world's oldest collections of stories, the Panchatantra, and its later derivatives such as the Hitopadesha. Throughout these fables, the talking animals behave as humans (unlike the Aesop model where animals behave as animals), and, are used to invoke characters with stereotypical personalities. There is also a distinction between wild and domesticated animals. Some of the common stereotypes include:

  • Lion: Is king of the forest, and demonstrates all the royal strengths and weaknesses. Is brave, noble and proud animal, but can also be haughty and foolish. Has a natural rivalry with the elephant.
  • Jackal: Is greedy and cunning (akin to the fox in European tradition), and sometimes gets punished but often gets away. Is often a manipulative minister to the king.
  • Hare: Is small and vulnerable, but compensates for it by being crafty, outwitting stronger rivals.
  • Elephant (wild or domestic): Is noble, proud and strong, and an enemy of the lion, but like the lion can also be naive, and, when in rut, wild and unpredictable.
  • Cat (domestic or wild): Is cunning and hypocritical, with a calm appearance hiding murderous intentions.
  • Dog: Is considered unclean and impure, and is reviled—not a pet but a pest. Is considered to lack self-respect.
  • Mongoose (domestic): Is a loyal and useful pet, best known for its natural enmity toward snakes. See The Brahmin and the Mongoose.




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Stereotypes of animals" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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