Chicago, IL

Human and animal bonds

How this article came to be: The Truman Show

Photo credit: Cannes Film Festival

why I wrote this — Anthropomorphism and semiotics

I have been thinking about anthropomorphism and semiotics  (zoosemiotics and ecosemiotics) for about 10 years now. I never really understood the harm that anthropomorphism could cause until now. Over the years I have traded emails with Timo Maran Ph.D., Professor of Ecosemiotics and Environmental Humanities, Department of Semiotics, University of Tartu, desperately trying to understand semiotics and the application to marine mammals in captivity. In one of the emails he told me to watch The Truman Show. After watching the show a few times I realized that semiotics is used to create a fabricated reality for Truman, manipulating his perception of the world around him. The movie explores the power of signs and symbols in shaping Truman’s (Jim Carrey) perception of reality, and how those signs and symbols were used to manipulate and control him and his behavior.  Over time Truman figures out through clues and some strange encounters with individuals that he is actually the subject of a reality show, for other people’s entertainment. 

Timo and I had one email exchange where we both agreed that orca’s in captivity can probably figure out that their world is fake and for entertainment purposes. In the Truman show Truman confronts the truth and escapes. Perhaps orca’s can figure this out too and because they are unable to escape they attack their trainers, decline in health, engage in self harm behaviors and become depressed and anxious. When I realized that orcas may experience the same revelations that Truman experienced in the movie, it was quite astounding as well as sad.  I guess I was anthropomorphizing. ~Lauren

Orcas and humans — highly social

By now, most of the people who are animal activists, marine biologists, orca lovers across the globe realize that orcas are highly social animals that form complex social bonds and family structures in the wild. When orcas are kept in captivity, they are separated from their family groups and placed in artificial social structures that may are not natural or sustainable. This can lead to stress and psychological trauma for the animals, making it even more difficult for them to adapt to a new environment.

Humans are also highly social mammals with complex social bonds and family structures and it makes logical sense that humans would develop a complex social bond with marine mammals in captivity; and the marine mammals would be forced to develop those same bonds with humans. 

When this bond occurs, I am postulating that humans will also engage in anthropomorphism which is a form of signification or semiotics. I feel this is highly problematic and explain the pitfalls below.

What is Anthropomorphism?

Anthropomorphism occurs when humans attribute human-like qualities, emotions, or behaviors to animals. When humans become too attached to animals, they may start to anthropomorphize them and project their own emotions and desires onto the animals. The danger in this means that the human can lead to misunderstanding the animal’s behavior and needs, which can result in inappropriate or harmful actions towards the animals. I am theorizing that anthropomorphizing marine mammals can have negative consequences whether they are in captivity or being rehabbed for release. 


Animal trainers and orcas develop such strong bonds that they are unable to break them and humans and orcas will always want to be in contact with each other. Based on anthropomorphizing an animal, trainers may incorrectly assume that the animal has been trained properly and is ready for release, can forage for food and shows all other signs that they can survive in the wild. Trainer ego plays a part in this scenario too, they believe they are the best in the world at rehab and release, and have an overly optimistic view of the orcas ability to survive in the wild because the orca was trained by them.

The article “Keiko’s love for children put his life in danger” is one of many examples of Keiko seeking human companionship. I am hopeful that the current trainers have learned a lot over the years and from the Keiko experience which could benefit Lolita if she survives captivity long enough to make it to a sea pen. 



An orca trainer’s use of signals and symbols, such as body language and vocal cues, can affect an orca’s behavior and welfare. Clear and consistent hand, voice and other signaling tools can improve communication and training outcomes, but confusing signals can lead to stress and behavioral problems. The orca may also become emotionally attached to the trainer, which can make it difficult to adapt to new environments. Trainers should use signals and symbols with care and consideration for the animal’s needs and well-being.

Semiotics and Zoosemiotics is an emerging field and there is limited research on how semiotics may confuse animals. However, there is some evidence to suggest that animals may be confused by certain types of signs and symbols, particularly those that are inconsistent or contradictory.

One example of semiotics is this study published in PLOSONE titled “Goats prefer positive human emotional facial expressions” Christian Nawroth et al. (2018). This study found that goats were able to discriminate between different human facial expressions, and that they showed signs of confusion and reduced exploration behavior when presented with a face expressing mixed emotions. As the field of semiotics evolves we will know more about how animals are affected by human signs and symbols, if proven to be true, of course orca’s would have been and be affected by human signs and symbols as well.

What could go wrong?

This section is a work in progress, I am working to find research articles to reference.

Killing Keiko — by Mark Simmons

The book “Killing Keiko” is a critique of the decision to release the captive killer whale Keiko back into the wild, arguing that the plan was poorly executed and ultimately led to Keiko’s death. The book raises broader questions about the ethics of keeping marine mammals in captivity and their ability to survive in the wild.

After reading “Killing Keiko” I could not help but think about the role that anthropomorphism and semiotics played in the failure to properly assess whether or not Keiko was ready for release. The other things this brook brought to light that were hidden from the public the internal politics, funding, ego’s, finance, and how activists impact and steer decision making.


My question: Can humans be objective enough?

The bond between humans and animals is a complex and multifaceted relationship that can be difficult to fully understand and appreciate. Because this bond is so complicated, it may be equally challenging for us to remain objective when interacting with animals, particularly when there is a strong emotional attachment between the human and the animal.

Everywhere we turn we see the anthropomorphism of animals and I believe scientists and biologists can be equally mesmerized by the animals that share our complex social structure, culture and intellect. Animal trainers who spend hours, weeks, days and years training animals would logically have a difficult time emotionally separating from them. 

Can Lolita be released to a sea sanctuary and can her humans remain neutral and objective enough to ensure her success?