Melissa Kaplan's
Herp Care Collection
Last updated January 1, 2014

Summer Musings

Part II: Anthropomorphism and Reptiles

©1995 Melissa Kaplan



  1. assigning human emotions and motivations to the actions of animals.

  2. a dirty word.

"But how do you know they're not happy?"
Many (most?) biologists decry anthropomorphism, saying that humans should not ascribe human feelings and motivations to other animals and inanimate objects. While most would agree that their car battery doesn't die on purpose on the morning of a big job interview, there are those who are now postulate that some degree of anthropomorphism, when used critically and based on prior experience and research, may have its place when working with animals.

One of the problems that exits is that the literature published in the academic and scientific journals is not always making its way into the literature perused by those who are responsible for the care of animals in captivity. In 1994, Herpetologica (49(4):488-500) published a triad of articles addressing the problem. In Search of Zoo-Academic Collaborations started off with A Research Agenda for the 1990's by David Chiszar, James Murphy and Hobart Smith (of the University of Colorado, The Dallas Zoo, and University of Colorado, respectively). F. Harvey Pough (Cornell University) responded with How close are we?. Michael Kreger (Animal Welfare Information Center) completed the triad with his Physiological and psychological needs of reptiles and amphibians.

Kreger is also one of the few who have studied the impact of handling on reptiles. Rather than looking at the handling a laboratory herp is likely to get, Kreger and Mench evaluated blue-tongue skinks (Tiliqua scincoides) and ball pythons (Python regius) and their reactions to gentle handling (as with a pet), manual restraint (as for a veterinary exam), and container restraint. Their findings tend to confirm that habituating captive animals to human contact in the long run prevents stress responses that could otherwise affect biomedical functioning, including reproduction.

This study certainly confirms my assessment that my blue-tongues and pythons were not bothered by handling. May I safely extrapolate that other of my animals may also not be stressed by the interactions, assuming they act, in their own way, much like my ball pythons and blue-tongue skinks? Can I use my experience with these particular animals and my knowledge of their species to determine if an animal is stressed or not feeling well? We have managed for millennia to make such assessments about our own pre-verbal offspring and the wild animals we ultimately domesticated. Why cannot such critical use of anthropomorphism be used when addressing or evaluating the welfare of reptiles and amphibians?

Do I know why my bearded dragon attacks the cord of the vacuum cleaner when it is turned on and why he doesn't when it is turned off? No. Can I make an educated guess that it may have something to do with his perception of it as a benign object when off and quiet versus a potential threat when it is on and noisy? Or that he knows his attacks will subdue the vacuum, causing it to fall silent once again? Perhaps.

I had an experience today with my alpha male iguana. At 17" svl and a hefty 10 lbs, he is very tame and is the iguana I use most in education, especially with children. He was chasing another male, not content today to merely displace that male from his basking area. I picked up the alpha male and took him into another room. When I interrupt these dominance sessions, I have always been able to calm him by holding him and rubbing his head. He will occasionally at first open his mouth when I do so, an act which I perceive to be a threat gesture, and interpret to be a way of signaling his response to my intervention, a response I take to be negative, that he is displeased or annoyed. I keep rubbing his head when he does this to maintain my own position alpha to him.

Today, he did his open-mouth threats a couple of times while I was holding him. The third time he did it, he turned his head as if to grab my thumb. I loudly and sternly barked "No!" and placed my petting hand on his side and shoulder.

He immediately looked away. By watching the eye closest to me, I could see him looking at the floor, into the other room, down to the floor, up at the ceiling, around the other room again...everywhere but at me. I just held him and said nothing, and did not move my hand from his side. Now, what he reminded me of was of someone who was getting chewed out and dealing with it by picking at their fingernails, or counting the roses on the wall paper, or determinedly picking at the hole in the knee of their jeans...anything but look at the person doing the chewing out.

I remained absolutely still and continued holding him for another minute or so...until he finally looked back at me, moved his head to my shoulder, gave me a lick, and put his head under my chin. Was he 'apologizing?' No. Iguanas are, however, smarter than the literature generally makes them out to be and they do indeed recognize their names and tones of voice. If they can learn their names, they can also most likely recognize other repeated strings of sounds. I know they don't understand the meaning of the words bad and lizard when I scold them, but they do recognize the change in tone and timber of voice. They also recognize dominant behavior and indications of a potential subordinate personality. So, even though it was a sort of Hallmark moment, realistically I believe he was signaling his recognition of my alpha status. I then rubbed his head for a bit, then placed him on a basking area where he stayed for the next several hours.

 As I am writing this, he has started to go back to the other room where I intervened earlier. I picked him, turned him around 180°, pet him a couple of times, then walked away and sat back down at my desk. He just sat there for a moment, then started walking in the direction I pointed him, went into a lateral compression display as he passed the Tokay gecko's tank, then stopped where he could just barely see me. Seeing that I was watching him, he turned the corner and walked away.

Was he planning mischief behind my back? No. What I believe happened is that, in response to my down reaffirming my dominance twice during our last two encounters, he 'dominated' the Tokay. Was he thinking that I would stop him if he tried to go into the other room to harass the other iguana? Was he watching me to see if I was distracted enough to enable him to turn around and scoot back to where he could do mischief? As I pause again, I see him looking at me from the kitchen. Is he still 'thinking' about it, or is he perhaps just hungry? From experience I know that when I am late putting out food or they are still hungry, they begin to gather in the kitchen between the counter where I store food bowls and the refrigerator. I go now and put down food, and all the others come rushing over...but he remains where he was. My conclusion: he was not happy with me and was continuing to wait to see if I would become distracted.

(This same iguana had another way of dealing with my distractions. When I was holding and petting him, and become distracted and stop, he gives me a minute or so, then nipped my chin. That served to get me back into focus on him, and I resumed petting him. Once I realized that he was training me, however, he was treated to a rather unceremonious dump onto the floor, whereupon he bobbed at me, then walked off.)

Am I guilty of anthropomorphism? Have I attributed human emotions and motivations to the interactions that occurred? Or have I used my knowledge of the individual, of the species, of agonistic behaviors and the existing dominance hierarchy here to make some educated guesses as to the motivations behind his actions?

 Wild vs. Captive Behaviors
Ethology is a relatively new branch of science dealing with behavior. Ethological techniques involve a great deal of observation of natural behavior. It is slowly narrowing the gap between Bambi-ism and what the animal is actually doing, using observation of the animal's behavior, evaluating it against the animal's natural history and with what is known about similar species or species in similar habitats or organized along similar social structures.

Having spent a fair amount of time counting the number of times pelicans dipped for food and the number of times they actually swallowed (they actually only succeeded in catching fish once every 22-23 swallows), I can only marvel at the researchers who determined that green iguanas do nothing 90% of their time. 

Ethology At Home
Watching our herps behavior is a necessary part of monitoring their health and response to captive conditions. Making incorrect assumptions about the meaning of behavior can be damaging to both reptile and human. The iguana who whips and thrashes the owner who comes to feed him doesn't hate the owner; he is just defending his territory, and since the human always so obligingly goes away, the iguana's territorial behavior is reinforced. A snake who becomes used to human contact only in conjunction with food and feeding times is going to begin responding to human contact in terms of such contact being a preliminary to feeding. This can result in feeding strikes and bites when no food is present.

Watch your herps. Make note of different behaviors, color changes, changes in appetite. I frequently get the same calls from the same people year after year...why is it that I am the one remembering that their iguana is hitting breeding season, or kingsnake is ready to hibernate, or frog aestivating? These should be written in your calendar from year to year or, better yet, in some sort of file kept on each of your animals, even on a piece of paper taped to your refrigerator. Our days are numbered by events--school starts, The Holidays, school ends, summer vacation, ski season, flu season, tax season... Our animals move to very different clocks. Taking note of theirs can be enlivening, helping to bring our own lives into perspective by taking a longer view of life's cycles.

Catching the abnormal behavior when it starts to occur is also a way to help guarantee that your animal will be healthier and live longer. Many diseases and disorders are treatable when caught in time

An interesting book which explores animal issues is Animal Rights: Opposing Voices, J Rohr, Greenhaven Press, 1989. It is part of a series of books presenting differing viewpoints written for high schoolers. For meatier discussions of rights vs. welfare, dive into Ethics and Animals, HB Miller and WH Williams, Humana Press, 1983.

Works cited:

  • Kreger, MD; Mench, JA. Physiological and behavioral effects of handling and restraint in the ball python (Python regius) and the blue-tongue skink (Tiliqua scincoides). Applied Animal Behavior, 1993, 38, pp 323-336.

  • Rosenfeld, A: Exotic Pets. Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York NY, 1987, 295 p.

  • Schaeffer, DO; Kleinow, KM; Krulisch, L: The Care and Use of Amphibians, Reptiles and Fish in Research. Scientists Center for Animal Welfare, Bethesda, MD, 1992, 196 pp.


Related Articles:

Assorted Summer Musings Part I: Animal Rights vs. Animal Welfare

Classical vs. Critical Anthropomorphism

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