Earlier this year I acquired a stuffed toy, a fluffy foot-long sea otter that I named Athena. I usually fall asleep with her tucked under my chin. Living alone, and with a travel schedule that keeps me from getting a real companion animal, I welcome the ‘company’ and ‘affection’ provided by this surrogate pet. Although I know Athena is inanimate and has no feelings, I believe I benefit from having her around.
Is this eccentric behaviour – anthropomorphism run amok? If so, I’m not alone: witness the popularity of teddy bears and Tamagotchis. But caring about a pseudo-pet is a widespread extension of the emotional bonds humans have with domesticated animals, especially dogs and cats. The study of such bonds falls within the realm of anthrozoology, a young field concerned with the personal relationships that people have with animals and, to a lesser degree, that animals have with us. John Bradshaw, who directs the Anthrozoology Institute at the University of Bristol, is a father of the field, having coined the term ‘anthrozoology’ with colleagues on the day he turned forty.
While the academic discipline might be young, the phenomenon it studies is ancient. Our ability to understand and feel affection for animals probably emerged as our brains evolved into their current form, some fifty to thirty thousand years ago. Bradshaw (with the help of marvellous illustrations by Alan Peters) is