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.