Perceiving Animal: A Human Question

A sloth bear
Ramki Sreenivasan
The purpose of the study was to understand the relationships between humans and Sloth bears
The landscape around Bodganahalli in Karnataka, India.
A mosaic of farmland and dry deciduous forest with giant boulders of metamorphic rock, an ideal habitat for bears.

How would we treat beings differently if we granted them ‘selves’? I live life with the experience that I possess a self and navigate interactions with other humans with the assumption that they too have ‘selves’. Is it possible that there are communities and cultures in this world that relate to the non-human beings around them with the belief that these beings have ‘selves’, and can this make communities more willing to negotiate rather than dictate space with them?

As a part of the dissertation thesis during my bachelor’s in psychology at Ambedkar University, Delhi, I conducted research on people’s perception of Sloth bears (Melursus ursinus) in the village Bodganahalli in Karnataka, India. The landscape is a mosaic of farmland and dry deciduous forest with giant boulders of metamorphic rock, an ideal habitat for the Sloth bears that reside in the area. Though anecdotal evidence suggests frequent human-bear interactions, and many newspaper articles indicate instances of grievous injury and death due to attack by bears, there are no studies in this region that document the frequency of such encounters.

The purpose of this study was to flesh out the nuances pertaining to the relationships between humans and Sloth bears in Bodganahalli and use this as a case study to explore those factors that contribute to human wildlife interactions but have received little or no attention so far.

Co-opting an anthropological sensibility, I did an ethnographic study which involved immersing oneself in the community, to not only study the social dynamics within the community but also open oneself up to the psychological undercurrents that uniquely underpin the relationship between human and non-human beings in that landscape. I conducted semi structured interviews with various people in the community including farmers, shepherds and village elders to collect narratives of direct encounters with sloth bears, myths related to bears and other animals and document their perception of the species.

“Once I was coming back to the village from the farm around 7 in the evening. I was riding my scooter through the coconut grove when suddenly, four bears appeared in front of me. I shone the light on them because they close their eyes if there is a flash of light and can’t see. So as soon as I flashed the light, two of the bears ran one way and the other two ran the opposite way. So you see they didn’t pounce on me, they went and hid. But then few second later they realized I was human and they all stood with their hands up like this. Then I had to gather some courage; I pushed the accelerator and whizzed past.”

Such narratives provided great insight into the way people understand and perceive bears in the landscape. They exhibited the extent of people’s familiarity with bears and indicated that people believed that they have knowledge about the bear’s behavior, daily routines and residence. This belief could create a sense of predictability about the bear and therefore help people in functioning from day to day without constant high levels of anxiety about being in danger, as they co-exist with the bear.

One of the interviewees narrated that the bear came about because a newlywed woman who turned herself through magic into a bear to reveal her magical skills to her husband, was unable to turn herself back into human form and therefore wanders around in the shape of a bear. Across the community, the anatomy of the bear was often considered comparable to the anatomy of the human beings. Many interviewees observed the similarity in many different body parts of the humans and bears, one of them also exclaimed at the similarity of internal organs after he witnessed a postmortem of a bear. Interestingly in this landscape, the pronoun ‘he’ or ‘she’ was used to refer to bears instead of the pronoun ‘it’. These factors can be used to deduce that the bears in this landscape are anthropomorphized to a substantial extent. Though anthropomorphism is generally looked down upon in the academic world, it is increasingly being recognized, especially in zoos, as a factor that contributes to the engagement of people in other animals.

Another interviewee attributed the actions of the bear to its hormonal bodily condition and suggested that the attacks of bears on humans were acts of sensual fulfillment such as hugging and kissing. In conjunction, there was also a prevalent myth in the landscape about bears kidnapping human beings. In such ways the people of Bodganahalli are not only granting the bear a self, a history and life cycle, but are also granting it needs/ sexual needs that it has the urge to fulfill. Though not ‘scientifically accurate’, these stories reveal a willingness to think about a circumstance from the vantage point of another being. They also portray the bears as having agency and choosing to act as they do rather than as passive, instinct-driven creatures who are permanently doomed to behave in a specific way. Ascribing agency to the animal perhaps allows for the active negotiation of space between human and non-human species and establish shared spaces that can accommodate humans and other animals.

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About the author


MSc Conservation Biology
, Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE),
 School of Anthropology and Conservation,
 University of Kent.


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