In 1974, the philosopher Thomas Nagel first asked “What is it like to be a bat?” Whilst originally an essay concerning the interaction between mind and body (and something highly worth reading for anybody with even a passing interest in the philosophy of mind), Nagel may have unintentionally left something important for the furry community to consider.
In his essay, Nagel wonders what it would be like to be a bat; what it would be like to see, hear, and experience the world from the subjective point of view that bats posses. He concludes that, as much as we may know about the brains of bats, about how echo location is supposed to work, and how they live day-to-day, we will never be able to understand exactly “what it is like to be a bat.” Despite our knowledge of echo-location, for example, without directly experiencing it, we can only imagine how it would feel to use it, and what we imagine would be conjured in relation to our experiences, not a bat’s. There is therefore an “aboutness” to being anything, a “how it feels to be X”, to everything conscious. This would hold true for every non-human creature, (as any bat furries may be pleased to hear). Therefore, when we identify as an animal, it can never be said that we have the “full picture” of it; only what we can observe, vis. You may identify as a wolf, but you are only identifying as the observable behaviours of wolves, and any inferences made from those, not as what a wolf actually experiences or thinks.
Now, consider “anthropomorphics.” Across multiple dictionaries, the consensus of the definition is “to ascribe human properties to something non-human”[2,3,4]. For example, we would be anthropomorphising the wind if we were to say “the wind is angry”; anger is a human emotion, but we are prescribing it to something inanimate. Similarly, when we attach human traits to animals, we are anthropomorphising them, such as when we imagine that a raven is cunning, or a pig is lazy.
What we must remember is that the pig is not actually lazy; we are merely taking what we call “laziness” in humans, and prescribing them to the pig. For all we know, from the pig’s point of view, it may be working very hard at whatever it is that it’s doing.
What I’ve said hitherto may seem like common sense, and, hopefully, it has. But consider what a person does when they create a furry character or fursona. Ordinarily, people believe that they are taking the animal and applying human features to it (anthropomorphising). However, it’s worth taking a look at the process of choosing.
Some choose an animal they like for an aesthetic reason, for example, “foxes look cool” (Result from the 2013 Furry Survey). Whilst others make their decision based upon perceived traits that an animal has: “Foxes are clever, and dignified” (Result from the 2013 Furry Survey), and “Real canines repay all the love and hate they receive in droves, which I admire, and represent the frank, sometimes ill-informed, honesty and loyalty that I exude” (Result from the 2013 Furry Survey).
The two attitudes can be categorised as either “aesthetic” or “personal”, the former being born from taking pleasure in the way an animal looks, the latter being formed by identifying with the subjective understanding of the already anthropomorphic traits the animal has.
In the case of the aesthetic, we can safely say that they have anthropomorphised; they have looked at an animal, and applied human features to it.
But in the “personal” category, something much more complex has happened. A person has taken the already anthropomorphic traits ascribed to an animal and used that as their “base”. For example, a person may have chosen a coyote due to the animal typically being thought of as “cunning”. What has happened here is not about the animal at all, but the representation, vis. the traits applied to it (which it does not intrinsically posses). The identity is with the “cunning” attached to the coyote – a purely human notion. Afterwards, due to it’s association, the coyote becomes a representation of “cunning”; it is used as a symbol to convey human thought, having nothing to do with actual coyotes. We cannot know “what it is like to be a coyote”, thus, we cannot say we identify as them on any level other than the one of which we understand them.
The term “zoomorphic”, generally, means “to use an animal symbolically”[5,6,7]. I believe that in the case of the “personal” category of choosing an animal character, this term is superior to “anthropomorphic”, for there is nothing to be made human; there is an identity with what is already human represented through an animal. The animal is symbolic; used to show something human, as opposed to existing independently of human perception, and having human traits applied to it.
This can be furthered through fictional entities, which can be argued to exist as embodiments of human concepts and ideas. A dragon, for example, does not exist independently of human imagination; it is a creature created as pure symbolism, although it may be representing different things across different times and cultures. Dragons, and other fictional entities, are human symbols, embodying various traits. To bring us back to earlier, there is no “what is it like to be a dragon.” It is impossible to apply human traits to something that already exists as human traits and say you have created an anthropomorphic dragon; the creature was already human, you have merely changed what it represented.
Where does this leave us? Personally, I feel that the clarification is more than just applying the appropriate term. It helps us to understand what we are doing, and what our characters mean, as well as what those around us are trying to achieve. If nothing else, I hope that this article has given you something to consider the next time you create an animal character, and what it really means.
T. Nagel, What is is it like to be a bat? “The Philosophical Review LXXXIII, 4 (October 1974)”, Pp. 43550.] http://organizations.utep.edu/portals/1475/nagel_bat.pdf
Merriman and Webster Dictionary: http://www.merriamwebster.com/dictionary/anthropomorphic
The Free Dictionary: http://www.thefreedictionary.com/anthropomorphic
The Dictionary Online: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/anthropomorphic
 Merriman and Webster Dictionary: http://www.merriamwebster.com/dictionary/zoomorphic
The Free Dictionary: http://www.thefreedictionary.com/zoomorphic
The Dictionary Online: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/zoomorphic