Animal mascots: claws for a cause

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Courtesy Arizona Athletics

UA mascots Wilbur and Wilma Wildcat pose for a photo outside of Old Main on campus.

The Tucson Festival of Books is dominating the UA campus once again. Authors come from all over the country to talk about topics ranging from diversity and economics to the paranormal and the rewriting of history. One particular topic  authors will be discussing is the impact that animals have on people. Several authors will broach this subject using their own experience and literature as a touchstone.

This experience ranges from rescuing animals and placing them in good homes to studying how encounters with animals can turn violent. Alison H. Deming, an English professor at the UA, is one of the authors speaking at the festival. She has written several books on how interacting with animals can be beneficial.

One of her more recent works, “Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit,” discusses the meaning of animals in our modern world and in our ancestral past. “Stairway to Heaven,” a poetry book published in 2016, examines the importance of nature in our lives.

The science behind human and animal interactions is an understudied one, but according to Uri Lifshin, a doctoral student in psychology, it is a promising one. 

“There’s still much more knowledge required,” Lifshin said. “This topic is, unfortunately, understudied in social psychology.”

Lifshin’s dissertation focuses on the psychology of human-animal interactions. He said they can be used to help people accept others that they may consider different from themselves. If someone is capable of feeling empathy toward animals, then they will be more accepting of people they consider different from themselves. 

“When we include animals in our group, we include all humans in our group, and that has a lot of positive effects,” Lifshin said.

This relationship means animals can be used as motivators of change and inspire people to join a cause. However, there are several criteria an animal must meet in order to capture the empathy of the public.

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First, people typically prefer mascots that are more human-like than animalistic. This relates to the human desire to distance oneself from animals. It is the reason why Wilbur and Wilma Wildcat walk around on two legs, as opposed to prowling around on all four feet like a real cat in the wild. They become more relatable and enjoyable for many people to be around, thereby becoming less threatening.

A second criterion is that the animal should activate our caregiver instinct. 

If it’s cute animals, they activate our caregiving system,” Lifshin said. “Then, we are drawn to them, and we feel more empathic towards them.” 

A baby polar bear, for example, may garner more concern for global warming than a large, grown polar bear might, even if they are placed in the same scenarios for the same cause.

Animals also allow people to be heroes, something Lifshin believes we all want to feel. 

“We all want to do good things,” Lifshin said. 

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By using animals, who may be seen as helpless and blameless by witnesses, a cause may become more motivational and gain more allies. This ties into people’s desire to leave a mark on the world; helping animals in any way they can – donating money, volunteering, or adopting – can foster feelings of happiness, confidence, and goodwill.

Lifshin’s research has also documented some interesting connections between culture and animals. Those that identify with animals in some way are less likely to be defensive over their own culture. 

Lifshin notes that there are ways that human and animal relationships can be negative. 

“It’s not that simple to use animals as agents for change,” Lifshin said. “Animals may be threatening to us, actually, because people don’t want to think that they [humans] are animals too.”

Deming’s panel on human-animal relationships will be on March 11, from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. It can be found in the Social and Behavioral Sciences tent, which seats 100 and is wheelchair accessible. 

Deming will be hosting the panel alongside Steven Church, an author whose latest book, “One with the Tiger: Sublime and Violent Encounters Between Man and Animal,” looks at the negative interactions that can occur between animals and humans. 


Follow Nicole Morin on Twitter.



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