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Animals as Symbols: Culture and Consequences

Can you think of an animal that gives you the heebie jeebies? Have you ever thought about why people experience such diverse emotions towards certain animals? Are you interested in becoming more open-minded to the world of creepy, crawly, creatures? As an environmental science student currently studying animals in human cultures, I want to take a closer look at some of my favorite animals that people love to hate.

The first spooky animal that I want to talk about is one you might be “familiar” with. Black cats have been demonized for centuries in Western culture. In the image above you will see an illustration from an English witchcraft pamphlet from 1579, depicting a witch feeding her familiars with blood. The image features a cat familiar in the foreground, representing an evil spirit used to harm others. If you are new to the history of visual culture you might be surprised to learn that pictures are representations of stories people are spreading into the world; stories which have consequences. If we keep telling the story of the cursed black cat, what happens? According to a recent study, we are still seeing the effects today. Researchers studying U.S. shelter statistics found that “black cats experienced the highest euthanasia and lowest adoption rates” (Carini et al., 2020).

Surely if we cannot separate the symbolism of black cats from the individuals, the less-cuddly animals deemed symbolically dark have little hope. I have firsthand experience as a snake handler, that it is not an easy world to navigate for those concerned with the well-being of animals generalized as harmful. In the Southern and Midwestern U.S., “rattlesnake roundups” are still in practice, which scientists have attributed to the vast decline in local rattlesnake populations where the brutal festivals are held (Means, 2009). I talked to my Veterinary Medicine professor about the issue of bias in the welfare of animals. We came to an unfortunate agreement that a combination of scientific and anecdotal evidence seemed pretty grim. However, I wanted to see how this bias develops on a micro scale, and what is happening in this latest generation of children and their instincts towards animals.

Some of you may be familiar with our Junior Naturalist program. For the month of October, our theme was spooky animals. I brought along my California Kingsnake, Oreo, to meet the families at Cottonwood Park. Hoping to learn from our interactions with the public, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. I ended up laughing to my teammate Irene at the end of the event, that it still surprises me how kids love snakes. Even when the parents won’t get close to a snake, kids are natural scientists and often their curiosity is stronger than their irrationality. I recognized myself in those kids whose parents would not touch a reptile for their own reasons, but they had their own minds set on discovering for themselves what could happen.

We have talked about cats and snakes. Now it is your turn to talk about rats, bats, toads, spiders, and whoever else comes up in the animal imagery this spooky season. I’m not asking you to welcome them into your home, but start a conversation about the stories being shared in your culture and how we can do right by the animals. If you want to know what you can do, make like a kid and ask questions, get out of your comfort zone and into your learning zone, and cultivate the mindset that growth is possible. Culture is not static and it starts with you!


Written By: Suzanne Bernard, Lead Rosewood Nature Study Area Education Coordinator


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