Are Wild Animals Really Just Like Us? | Science

Why can’t we stop anthropomorphizing our animal friends and foes?
Illustration by Emily Lankiewicz / Orca image from Christopher Michel via Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY 2.0 / Bird and dolphin via Pixabay

It’s not the most urgent news story that’s gripped the world since 2020, but it might be the weirdest: The last three years have seen more 400 “encounters”— many reports have used the wordattacks”between orca whales and boats in the Strait of Gibraltar. Because the orcas are particularly fond of tearing the propellers off of yachts, the temptation to characterize these six-ton, pack-hunting, demonstrably intelligent mammals as class warriors fighting back against the 1 percent is strong, and the memes have been fun. But trying to understand animal behavior in human terms is a mistake.

On our latest episode of the Smithsonian magazine podcast “There’s More to That,” I talk with Carlyn Kranking, Smithsonian’s assistant digital science editor, about why stories about animal behavior are so popular with our readers, and how she decides which ones deserve more scrutiny. Then, I speak with Lori Marino, a biopsychologist with a specific focus on whale and dolphin intelligence, about what’s really happening between the orcas and the yacht set.

A transcript is below. To subscribe to “There’s More to That”—and to listen to past episodes on J. Robert Oppenheimer, the vanishing Colorado River, the OceanGate Titan disaster and more—find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

Chris Klimek: Think about the late ’80s: the big shoulder pads, the bigger hair, maybe some leg warmers or very high-waisted pants. Carlyn Kranking, one of our science editors here at Smithsonian magazine, told us that young orca whales were also fashion victims back then.

Carlyn Kranking: There was a time where juvenile orcas in one particular population would swim around with a dead fish on their heads. It was in the Puget Sound area in the Pacific. One orca apparently started it, and over the next few weeks, other orcas were doing the same, wearing dead salmon like hats, and then the trend stopped. It was just passing, so it was just a short-term fad. It happened apparently in 1987.

Klimek: Well, we were all wearing fish on our head back then.

Kranking: Yeah. But there are lots of things that orcas do that are just kind of interesting and show a lot of social behavior between them.

Klimek: This kind of pattern in orca behavior is one possible explanation for why the whales seem to have spent this summer attacking boats off the coast of Spain. You may have heard about this, because it was reported that way all over the internet.

Kranking: And the other part of it is that some of these boats are not just any old boats. Some of them are yachts, which are affiliated with the ultra-rich, and so people have been framing this orca as someone who’s an “orca of the people” fighting back against the rich. There’s merch out there on the internet that people have created on Etsy and stuff where it’s just stickers or T-shirts with slogans such as “Sink the Rich,” or “Let’s Go, Girls,” because of the female-led uprising.

Klimek: A female-led uprising, because allegedly this entire boat-ramming orca fad was started by one female whale, according to one scientist’s theory.

Kranking: One orca, whose name is White Gladis, might have a critical moment of agony with a boat, which could have been some negative interaction that harms the orca, and now as a result, she is ramming into boats. And it’s possible that the younger orcas saw this happen and started imitating her behavior, and that could possibly be how it spread.

Klimek: Carlyn works on a lot of animal news stories at Smithsonian. She says they’re very popular with readers.

Kranking: Especially ones where animals are doing something out of the ordinary or something unexpected for them. Even things where animals are interacting with human technology or human society, those tend to do really well. And in the case of the orcas, I think it goes a little bit deeper, because it’s not just that the orcas are interacting with human technology, it’s that they are allegedly interacting with it intentionally and possibly because of a negative experience with it. We don’t necessarily know this for a fact, but I think that that idea is what has really gotten people intrigued into this story.

Klimek: We don’t know for a fact, and we’re going to meet a scientist this episode who will explain why. With stories like this, there is a tendency to project human feelings and emotions onto animal behavior. So journalists covering animal stories have to be careful about the language they use.

Kranking: A lot of the stories have been portraying the orcas as attacking the boats, which definitely not only implies intention, but also malice. It really makes people think that the orcas are out there to take people down. And in a way that could be damaging to the animal’s perception, but I feel like people are actually really aligning themselves with the orcas and getting behind that as opposed to seeing it as a bad thing. A lot of people are kind of cheering them on from the internet.

Klimek: From Smithsonian magazine and PRX Productions, this is “There’s More to That,” a show where experts tell us the real deal behind stories that go viral. On today’s episode: Can a whale be a vigilante? Can a sea otter really love surfing? What are these animals really doing? I’m Chris Klimek. Let’s find out.

Klimek: The orcas aren’t the only animals that have gotten a lot of press lately.

Kranking: There is this one case in California off the coast of Santa Cruz where there’s actually an otter called Otter 841. She has been approaching people on surfboards and not just coming close to them, but actually gripping onto the surfboards, biting them and, in at least one case, climbing on top of the surfboard and kind of like doing a little surfing.

Chris Klimek: Disrupting human recreation seems to run in Otter 841’s family.

Kranking: She was actually born in captivity to a mother who had been captive before, then was released, then was actually removed from the wild because she had been approaching humans in kayaks. So this otter is maybe repeating some of that behavior, because now, after she was released to the wild a few years ago, she has been interacting with surfers. And so, as a result, now the local aquarium officials are trying to capture her and bring her back into captivity for her own safety and for people’s safety.

Klimek: Elsewhere on the internet this summer, a lot of people were following another big story about European crows and magpies.

Kranking: These birds were building their nests with anti-bird spikes—those metal sticks that they put on buildings and stuff to keep birds away from them. But the birds would actually pry them up and put them in their nests. The media has been framing this as the “perfect comeback” for the birds. And the scientist also has said the birds are outsmarting us. So this, perhaps to a lesser extent than the otter and the orcas, has also been a case where people are looking at the animals kind of fighting back in a way against human technology and using it for their own use.

Klimek: Animals aren’t humans, but when we try to understand their behavior, we just can’t seem to stop assigning them human motives.

Lori Marino: The big, bad, dirty word in science is “anthropomorphism.”

Klimek: Dr. Lori Marino is a neuroscientist who studies animal behavior and intelligence, particularly that of dolphins and whale. You may remember her from the 2013 documentary Blackfish.

Marino: You don’t want to attribute human characteristics to other animals who don’t have those characteristics, but that doesn’t mean that everything you interpret is anthropomorphism.

Klimek: Today, Lori is president of the Whale Sanctuary Project, an organization that creates humane coastal enclosures for different types of whales, but she spent most of her career studying marine mammal behavior. In fact, she co-authored a study that proved bottlenose dolphins could recognize themselves in a mirror.

Marino: Because we share the brain structures that have to do with emotions, memory and many other capacities, it’s not necessarily anthropomorphism to recognize shared abilities and characteristics between ourselves, dolphins, and whales and other mammals.

Klimek: We thought Lori could help us understand not just what’s going on with these headline-making animals, but also why we seemed so determined to assign human motivations to the things that animals do.

So, surely you’ve seen the coverage of the orca encounters near the Strait of Gibraltar.

Marino: Oh, yeah.

Klimek: What are you thinking as you read these stories?

Marino: Well, as I read these stories, I thought to myself, “Wow, we are projecting our psychology on them.” I think it’s really interesting that the meme that has evolved around these orcas is that they’re out for revenge. And so what that means is that we think we’ve done something to them that warrants revenge. We’re dumping our guilts and our projections onto them. There’s no evidence at all whatsoever that they’re out for revenge.

If they were, it would be a bigger deal than it is. They’re just having a good time playing with rudders. They find it interesting. These are big-brained animals. They’re going to explore, they’re going to play around with things, and we shouldn’t be so defensive about it. We definitely carry the weight of what we’ve done to orcas and other animals.

We’ve killed them, we have taken them captive and put them in tanks. So we are very aware that we haven’t had a good relationship with these animals generally. We’ve done things to them that we may not be proud of, but that’s on us. That’s a projection of who we are. The media has totally sensationalized this whole story to make it a “us versus them” story, the orcas versus the humans, and that’s not really what’s going on.

Klimek: It’s also been framed as kind of a revenge on the 1 percent as well, right? And the assumption these are super rich people on these yachts?

Marino: Oh my gosh, that is so ridiculous.

Klimek: So some stories have described these, I’ve been using the word “encounters,” and some have used the word “attacks.”

Marino: Yeah, they’re not attacks. If they were attacks, there would be a lot more damage done. People would be harmed. If an orca wants to harm you, that orca will harm you. You don’t have a choice in the matter. So these are not attacks. These are, again, orcas finding something interesting and fun to play with. It’s a behavioral fad. We know they do all kinds of things like that. They put things on their head, and they swim around with things, and it’s just what you do when you’re in an environment where you’ve got lots of stuff to play with and interact with.

Klimek: We’re all particularly obsessed with this history of orcas wearing salmon on their heads. Can you tell us more about that, please?

Marino: There’s all kinds of things that they do. There was an orca group that used to put salmon on their head and just swim around with it. That is a fad, because I think it disappeared after a while. But if a fad gets entrenched in a community and then passed on from one generation to the next, it becomes cultural.

And that’s how we see all of these different orca cultures around the world, off the coast of New Zealand, the way orcas live and their dialect, very different from the way they live in British Columbia or in the Salish Sea in Washington. They each have their own culture, and this has been studied extensively. These are true cultures.

Klimek: So this means that the evidence shows they really are social animals, right? That’s not our projection.

Marino: Oh, they are.

Klimek: We can verify that.

Marino: Very social. Their social bonds, held together by strong emotions and the need to stay together, are extremely strong, and that’s why it’s so important to keep them in the wild, to not take them away from their families, because that is a huge harm to them psychologically, emotionally.

Klimek: Did you read about the otter in Santa Cruz commandeering the kid’s surfboard?

Marino: Yes, that otter. Again, the otter, somehow considered an individual, is taking revenge. That otter used to be in captivity and was released, and that is why he has, I don’t know if it’s a he or she, has such an interactive nature with humans. It’s not just an otter out of the wild. And again, there is this whole “us versus them.” What are we going to do about the otter who steals surfboards? Well, nothing. If you don’t want your surfboard being stolen by an otter, go somewhere else. It’s silly. It really is.

Klimek: Yeah. I mean, that video, the otter appeared quite deliberate, he really wanted that surfboard.

Marino: He certainly did. It is deliberate. That doesn’t mean that the otter is out to get all humans on behalf of all other otters. We sensationalize things. We make stories up about why animals are doing things, and those stories reflect our psychology.

Klimek: Do dolphins and whales have emotions like we do?

Marino: Yes.

Klimek: How do we know this?

Marino: We know this for a number of reasons. One is that we have the same brain structures that are involved in processing emotions as dolphins and whales and other mammals. There’s a part of the brain called the limbic system, and that’s the part of the brain where emotions like anger and affection are processed, as well as memory. And so we share that system with dolphins and whales.

And so I think that it is parsimonious to say that because we have the same structures that have to do with emotional processing, that we are experiencing emotions the same way they are. We also know from their behavior that they respond in ways that we would respond. Remember the case of Tahlequah, the orca whose baby died and she carried her deceased baby for 17 days. And that became a worldwide sensation.

I think it was sort of a wake-up call for people to realize, “OK. Yeah, she’s a mother, she’s grieving her dead infant. We get that.” And everyone felt that. That’s not anthropomorphism, that’s just recognizing the fact that we have a similar brain and we’re going to react similarly under similar circumstances. That doesn’t mean we’re identical. We are in a sense, different versions of a mammal. We’re not completely alien from them.

Klimek: Do you think that should make us recognize that we are more connected to these creatures than we think, even though we don’t live in the ocean, but feeling and expressing an emotion like grief?

Marino: Absolutely. And we shouldn’t be surprised when they show those kinds of emotions, and we should hopefully feel more of a connection and compassion for them, because they are not so strange that we can’t possibly know what they’re thinking and feeling. We can know. We can look at their brain, we can look at their behavior, we can look at the evolutionary history of mammals, we can look at basic biology and make inferences about what it’s like to be an orca or a bottlenose dolphin or a beluga or a tiger or a human.

These are just different versions of the same thing. The brains of dolphins and whales are both similar and different from those of ourselves. And those similarities ensure that there is overlap in psychology. I mean, the past few years has been really interesting in the field of animal behavior and cognition. We’re finding more and more shared characteristics with other animals.

And I’m not talking about big-brain mammals. I’m talking about birds, I’m talking about insects. And it’s really interesting, because we’re finding that a lot of the traits that we thought were human and unique are not, and we’re having to come to a reckoning with that. What does that mean that bees, for instance, show social learning, show memory, show evidence of play behavior? What does that mean? The work has to be done to really understand what that is and how that reflects biology.

Klimek: I mean, as humans, we often talk about our emotions as things that hold us back or get in the way or things that we have to overcome. But is there any evidence that these social interactions or emotional behavior, is there any evolutionary benefit to the extent that we can actually help these animals survive?

Marino: I can tell you this: Without emotions, there would be no life. And if you trace the evolutionary history of the brain, the nervous system, even as far back as the kinds of excitable membranes that single-celled animals have, you can see a common thread. The first thing that brains do is they interpret and drive behavior, and that behavior is driven by emotion.

People who have problems with their limbic system, for instance, who don’t have the right kind of emotional processing, they can’t make a decision. So this is not just about feeling, this is about acting and behaving and deciding and motivated behavior, emotion, motion.

So emotion serves to allow all organisms to transfer through their environment and make the right kinds of decisions about how to survive, what feels good, what doesn’t feel good, what memory do you have of a place where something bad happened? These are really basic things, and that is the real basic purpose of emotion. That’s not something that is unique to humans. All animals with brains have emotions, because they have to.

Klimek: Are there things that humans do that invite these responses? By bringing my yacht into a place that orcas like, am I inviting a response?

Marino: I don’t know if you’re inviting a response, because you never know what is going to interest them. I have colleagues who swim with orcas all the time. I’ve been in small dinghies surrounded by orcas. How those animals respond just depends upon who they are, what they find interesting, what they want to do that day. It does mean respect and distance. You don’t want to chase these animals down, you don’t want to crowd them out. But if you are on the water and you’re keeping a respectful distance, then you really can’t tell what it is that’s really going to get them jazzed up.

Klimek: So I know a big part of your work is the effect that captivity itself has on wildlife.

Marino: Yeah.

Klimek: How are human and animal interactions different in a controlled environment like that versus in the wild?

Marino: Oh my gosh, they’re entirely different. When you do field work and you meet a dolphin or whale in the wild, you realize how different they are from the individuals who are living in concrete tanks and performing tricks and so forth. The animals in the tanks are trying to eke out some kind of an existence in a really impoverished, barren, intrusive environment.

And they may be starved for attention from you, they may be aggressive, they are totally stressed out, and that shapes their behavior toward you. When it comes to animals in the wild, what you learn is that it’s not all about us. They may not care less about what we’re doing or who we are. They’re leading their lives, spending their days doing what they want. You’re observing, and you’re not a big deal.

Klimek: When animals do things that we interpret as destructive—taking my surfboard away—does that interfere with conservation efforts? Does it interfere with our ability to sympathize with them and think we should treat other species better than we are?

Marino: It interferes with conservation efforts and compassion toward them if we blow it out of context. If we’re going to let an otter taking a surfboard or a few orcas dismantling a rudder affect our compassion and our desire to conserve and protect them, then that’s on us. I would not want to have a rudder destroyed on my boat, but compared to what we do to them, it’s nothing. It’s nothing. What I do fear is that people will start to take this “us versus them” meme and perhaps try to harm the orcas to scare them away from doing these things. That’s a real fear that I have, because our species often tends to the violent and aggressive when we can’t get the change that we want, and that would be tragic.

Klimek: Yeah. What about when we map these characteristics or motivations onto specific types of animals? Are we going to be talking for the next five years about how aggressive otters are? Or, even if we ascribe an altruistic motive or something to another type of animal, does suggesting broadly that this species is like this, do you see that as a problem for conservation efforts?

Marino: Well, it’s always a problem when you say, “A species is like this,” because they’re all individuals. It’s just like humans, right? You can’t say all humans are like A, B and C. And so we really can’t make those kinds of statements about them. Conservation efforts have for a long time been all about the numbers: “Let’s count how many orcas, how many zebras, how many elephants are there, and let’s look at the numbers and see if those numbers are going up or down.”

But it’s not a numbers game. This is about individuals. So when you look at a group of orcas or bottlenose dolphins somewhere in the ocean, it’s not just how many there are, but what is their culture? And if we recognize the fact that they do have culture, wiping them out is not just a numbers game. It’s about wiping out an entire culture from the face of the planet. There’s so much more going on than just a group of animals.

Oh, there’s 150. But who are they? And there’s a lot of interesting science that’s been done called social network analysis showing that how you interact with a group of dolphins, for instance, determines the viability of that group. If you, for instance, go in and you try to capture a dolphin who is on the outskirts of his group, that may not have that much of an impact on the group itself, although it will on the individual. But if you go and you tag or you capture a dolphin who’s a real strong node in that social network, you could dismantle the whole group.

Klimek: Are there any benefits to when we try to frame animal behavior in human terms? Is it possible that anything good could come from that?

Marino: Well, again, framing animal behavior in human terms is not necessarily what we want to do, but what we do want to do is recognize the shared capacities between humans and other animals. The continuity and evolution is not about making animals into Disney cartoon characters and saying that they have all the same desires as a human, but at the same time, if we acknowledge the science tells us that they have emotions, that they have certain capacities, and we have to recognize that. So again, it’s like keeping the similarities and the differences in mind, both at the same time.

Klimek: Boy, I love the Pixar movie Ratatouille, and I can’t say it’s made me any more sympathetic toward the rats in my building.

Marino: Nothing wrong with Disney, but I think that we have to realize that other animals have their own lives to live. It is not a life that’s in reference to our life, and we have to respect that.

Klimek: Dr. Marino, thank you so much for talking to us. This has been completely fascinating.

Marino: Thank you so much. It’s been fun.

Klimek: To learn more about Dr. Lori Marino’s Whale Sanctuary Project, check out the link in our show notes. And to read all of our animal news coverage, head to Before we let Lori go, we asked her if she had a dinner party fact for us. This is the segment we like to close the show with. We give you a small piece of knowledge to pull out the next time your supper conversation runs dry, and lucky for you, Lori served us all a little slice of humble pie.

Marino: As humans, we like to say that our brain is the most elaborated brain on the planet, that we have the most wrinkled neocortex on the surface of all primates, but actually the most neocorticalized—in other words, the brain that’s the most elaborated in terms of thinking with the most convolutions on the surface—is not humans, it’s orcas. So if you really want to look at objective measures of brain evolution and elaboration, we don’t come out on top on every measure, and so maybe we shouldn’t have so much hubris.

Klimek: “There’s More to That” is a production of Smithsonian magazine and PRX Productions. From the magazine, our team is me, Debra Rosenberg and Brian Wolly. Fact-checking by Stephanie Abramson. From PRX, our team is Jessica Miller, Genevieve Sponsler, Adriana Rozas Rivera, Ry Dorsey and Edwin Ochoa. The executive producer of PRX Productions is Jocelyn Gonzales. Our episode artwork is by Emily Lankiewicz. Music is from APM Music. I’m Chris Klimek. Thanks for listening.

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