Thinkin’ It Through

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Thinkin’ It Through, Anthropomorphic Characters Are a Small Logical Leap Series

Just a dumb animal.” For how often humanity expresses this sentiment it is often more of a reflection of our ego, our need to be placed on a pedestal above the “beasts of the earth, sea, and sky”. How remarkably sad it is to see the brilliance exhibited in other creatures that is buried by such baseless remarks.

From the intuitive nature of man’s best friend to the keen perception that fuels the steel-trap mind of the crow we are surrounded by creatures of profound abilities. Abilities human often claim to be solely their own. Surprise humanity! You are special, but not that special.

PhoenixDemonDog

“In everything there is the potential for complexity. You only see it if you open your eyes wide enough.”

That Deep Down Feeling

Animals don’t have feelings.” That is a turd the size an elephant dumps. Anyone who has a multi-pet household that has suffered a loss will have witnessed the surviving pets mourn. Yes—they know what death is. I have witnessed my own dogs after sniffing the body of their previous housemate react. They grieve in just as varied a degree as humans. And it seems if they have witnessed more than one passing, they recognize it from a distance.

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Ashenpaw, Ion, and Presto

The first loss in our household Presto experienced he approached several times, close and circling. He sniffed as if trying to wake up his playmate. It took him time to figure out that it wouldn’t happen. This December when our oldest, Ashenpaw, passed on just shy of fourteen years-old from a long struggle with congestive heart failure, Presto lay across the room on his bed. He moped as our typically bright-eyed border collie never had before. Without sniffing Ash, he knew this time.

We also had Phoenix, our youngest border collie and aussie mix. She’s been training to become a therapy dog. With a mixture of confusion and caution she approached Ash’s body. Every key in her body language from ears to tail told me she was concerned about what she experienced. I have no doubt that my perceptive little girl was also reading me. She had heard me tell Ash that I would be alright if he let go just moments before. She curled up next to me and stared at Ash’s motionless body. Her canine mentor was gone.

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One of the last photos taken of our beloved silver-muzzle Ash.

Phoenix has demonstrated extraordinary perception of human emotion. As a therapy-dog-in-training she ventures into a senior community and spends time as an emotional distraction to the residents and staff. She loves her job, it’s obvious because she wakes me up eagerly every Tuesday morning without fail. Yes—my dog knows what day of the week it is without a calendar. Roaming those halls she tells me through body language which residents need more time with her. Contrary to popular belief, dogs do talk. Most people don’t take the time to learn how to listen (aka read their body language).

PhoenixTherapyDog

Phoenix, the big girl, waiting for a skills assessment.

Now, my little girl wasn’t my first therapy dog. Before her came Ion.

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Ion entering the hospice therapy program.

This collie was a vibrant star earning his status into the program at one year old. For those who don’t know, that is very rare. Most one year old dogs are not mature enough to be reliable. Ion just was. His tiny eyes and long snooter worked magic. Sadly, my empathic boy proved to be a bright star burning out in four years. He succumbed to complications of an unknown disease that claimed him before the vets could figure it out. He is missed as he knew just who needed his warmth. It’s been years now and people still remember how he would wander up to them: excited if they were happy that day, or more somber if they needed a dog hug. He sensed. He knew.

He is not alone. Many dogs who are not even trained for such supportive things are known to develop them. Whether it is simply lying close to a loved one with the flu or a migraine, or standing next to them ready to bear weight for stability for someone who had a surgery—this last is a recent case a friend shared with me. The dog has not been trained in this, he simply did it for her after she got home. Don’t just take my word for it, there are countless cases out there.

Problem Solving Perception

Learning is such an amazing process to watch. Funny thing is it works the same across species. I always loved watching my border collie Ashenpaw work with a brain teaser toy. He learned quickly that there were treats inside.

Check out Ashenpaw’s demonstration of impulse control.

Animals, including humans, learn via association. If they do this, this happens. If it’s good results, keep doing the behavior. If it’s bad, generally they try to avoid it. But that only works if the consequence is cleanly correlated. There are great examples of complex chain behavior building. The sport of agility is a great example. And also includes running dogs in an excited state. This state of mind is largely run on adrenaline which overrides a lot of cognition. Ever had a dog chasing a rabbit that completely blows their recall? Yup. This is what happened. Too much excitement, thinking side of brains shuts off. The trick is to work with the dog and over time alter where the threshold lies. In time you get a dog that can think in that excited stage.

The same is true for the human animal. Jobs involving high stress release adrenaline. This can short circuit problem solving. To be able to behave reliably we also need to train up the performance level. Think of ETMs, police, soldiers—all of these involve moments of extreme tension. Average minds freeze up, or knee-jerk react. But with training the mind learns to control. Most of us are not born able to do this. And I promise you, working with border collies you learn to see real fast that border collies are not born to control that shit either. Which is why a good lot of them are surrendered at seven months old for behavior issues. 90% of the time it’s because their owners failed to work impulse control.

Work that impulse control and you can unlock some seriously kick-ass potential. From dogs that can work hillsides of sheep on their own, dogs who can run an agility course on verbal command while the handler remains behind the start line, to dogs who have enormous vocabs.

Chaser is an amazing border collie who knows over 1,000 words. Put a huge circle of toys on the floor, ask for one, and you get it! What’s more fascinating is that she can exhibit the ability to process eliminate. If she knows two of three toys and you ask for the one she doesn’t know, you get the new toy. That is not a “dumb animal” behavior. That’s fairly advanced learning. This border collie has appeared on many talk shows as well as scientific programs demonstrating how animals are not that far behind if we acknowledge them. So many of the things deemed to make us human are exhibited in the animal world. We have our own instincts too.

The Murder of Crows

An astonishingly advanced bird is the crow. Experiments have been done by researchers uncovering complex social behaviors.

Crows have funerals. Yes. You read that right. And what’s wilder, not just for members of their own flock. Researchers placed the body of a dead crow near a gathering of crows. They came, checked out the body, and immediately began to mourn the deceased brother. Vocalizations, behaviors like dancing, and circling.

Signs 009

Behold the mystical crow. I tell yah, if a crow doesn’t trust a person, I’ll steer clear!

Using masks, scientists conducted further experiments on facial recognition. Using a face mask they fed the flock and gained a reputation with them. Then, being careful to use different masks, the same individuals performed a mock crow murder. When they came back wearing the murder mask on another day to feed the crows—warning cries filled the glade. Same person with the different mask later approached with food and no problem. The crows had distance facial recognition and were acting as a major form of security. The ultimate “eye in the sky”.

Scientists already knew that crows had incredible problem solving skills. And that they would even choose to share with another bird rather than hog resources for themselves. They exhibited a sense of fairness. Something we often see in children that is displayed to a lesser extent in adults. Interesting how that is. As we age, we tend to forget how to share.

DonQuilypsosLastStandMixedFinished

As we further explore the animals around us it becomes interesting to see how often they demonstrate the ideal human. Maybe this is why adults choose to confine them to a puerile state, because it further lifts the pedestal. After all, can’t have anything threatening that fragile human ego.

Next up: Egg-istential Crisis

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Getting Lippy

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Getting Lippy, Anthropomorphic Characters Are a Small Logical Leap Series

The power of speech. Something many take for granted. So much so that the basics of the creation of sound often escape common knowledge. Write anthropomorphic works and I promise you this is a remark you will see, “But they can’t speak without lips!”

epicfail

“They said what? … no, no!”

Alright, for the purposes of the second entry in my series we will ignore the other forms of communication: body cues, sign language, writing. Today we’re talking about the ability of audible speech. I hope you have come with a sound mind, pun very much intended.

Inside the Voice Box

Most of us talk without thinking about how it is actually done. We developed the ability so long ago it’s subconscious. Inside our necks we have an organ called the larynx. This structure controls several things, including closing off your lungs from food when you swallow. But it also suspends the vocal chords. Controlling the air flow through these flaps of tissue is a large part of speech and pitch. What you hear is the vibrations of air. We’re basically wind instruments.

Most mammals have a version of this organ. Dogs have one very similar to our own, note the two diagrams provided. The parts correspond.

 

Birds have an organ called a syrinx. A bit more on that later. Reptiles, amphibians and even some fish have a simplified version, some utilize bone ridges to produce vocalizations. However some animals have opted to be voiceless and have evolved beyond the basic organ in favor of other adaptations. Yes, this does make it trickier to support the concept of the latter obtaining speech. The case is the strongest in mammals and birds. Remember, with anthropomorps we are talking about a fictional world with either a fantasy suspension of disbelief or a sci-fi explanation of genetic alterations or alien life.

Lip Locked

Dogs can’t talk, they don’t have lips.”

Well, there’s two things wrong with that statement. One, dogs most certainly have lips. I know, I have painted enough smiling dog lips as a pet portrait artist. Phoenix shows off her sweet smile, that fur-less flesh looking a bit like an earthworm along her teeth is her lower lip.

PhoenixLips

“You like my smile, no?”

Ashenpaw, my late border collie, disproves another aspect I have heard. That they can’t from shapes enough to effect sound. Oh yeah? Howling allows a lot of phonetic differences. And this old bad boy would grumble “momma” if I was late getting his dinner ready. There are quite a few videos online of dogs mimicking human speech, albeit limited by their real world physicality.

Ash111812

“I want my dinner now!”

Thing number two that’s wrong with the statement:Ventriloquism is proof that you don’t have to move your lips to speak, it’s merely easier to do so. Speech is largely the placement of the tongue in the mouth, where the tongue strikes the teeth (if at all), and internal mouth cavity shape with air flow. I am not a ventriloquist, but I love watching skilled performers like Jeff Dunham. Watching shows like this prove that even though the average person uses lip shape to form words, it is possible to produce speech without them.

Moot point though in animals that have lips anyway.

Stiff Lipped!

Of course birds don’t have any form of lip. Ever heard a parrot speak? That torpedoes any notion of lips being a requirement for speech.

Parrot

“Did you hear the one about the saltine?”

Parrots mimic human speech and other sounds through using the syrinx, an organ similar to the mammalian larynx, however the avian version is located at the fork between the lungs. This means they can actually produce two different sounds simultaneously by controlling the flow individually. Pretty neat. Parrots are capable of mimicking complete vocal patterns and are capable of forming associations if the context is strong enough, such as saying “Hello” when the phone rings. Some can form quite the vocabulary … including a colorful one if someone likes to cuss in their earshot.

As to why they copy so many different sounds including power tools, car horns, etc, the current theory is that in wild parrots could use the different vocalizations to determine where a potential mate was from and use that information for selection. It’s also recently been discovered that parrots have individual names for one another. There are unique sound combos used by parents to address individual chicks that they keep throughout their lives. Yes—this is in wild parrots.

Next time you hear a parrot screeching, it might be the avian equivalent of, “Johnny! Get your tail back here right now!”

Next in the series, Thinkin’ It Through

The Bone Connection

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The Bone Connection, Anthropomorphic Characters Are a Small Logical Leap Series

The metacarpals are connected to the proximal phalanges. The proximal phalanges are connected to the intermediate phalanges. The inter—what? What do you mean what I am talking about?

Ok. Let me clue in those I have lost with layman terms. I’m talking about front paws. Do those bones maybe also sound familiar? If you’ve busted a finger I bet you’ve heard phalange before. It’s funny how most people commonly refer to the digits on a dog’s front paw as their toes, when technically the bones are fingers.

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You should know Ealaidh by now. Would be pretty tough for her to play instruments sans thumbs.

Which brings us to anthropomorphism in writing: animal characters with human traits. This is a series exploring how fine a line writers are treading when they create anthropomorphic characters and worlds, why suspension of disbelief is nowhere near as difficult as it seems if you think about it logically, and why this really isn’t just kids stuff. Most of my works involve canines. The reason behind that is I have been a lifelong dog owner, or at least my family owned dogs when I was a kid. I am familiar with their form, their traits, their habits, their social mannerisms… and I love them. This is also the reason why most of my breakdowns in the series are canine-centric. I have examples right at my feet.

Hand and Paw Degree

Ok, now you won’t see me arguing that a real world dog possesses a full grasping hand. Scientifically they do not. They do, however, possess the same bones right down to the corresponding phalanges for a thumb. These can be found on dogs where the dewclaw has not been removed. The dewclaw is not a highly mobile digit for dogs, it serves as traction control for tight turning, as is seen in this photo of my agility dog, Ash.

DewClawTurn

Ashenpaw, my border collie, demonstrating a wrist layout as he turns. That joint is actually his wrist. The dewclaw grips the ground allowing a tighter turn.

The tendons attached to the digit are not lined up properly for motor control. But if you look at a paw next to a human hand, there is the basis for the ‘what if they were’ that good fiction is hung on.

PawHandCompare

Phoenix, my border collie/ausse mix’s left front paw and my left hand in a similar position. Think about it, dogs actually walk on their fingers and toes.

Anthropomorphism already implies there is a fusion, an evolution of the animal’s original structure to resemble a human. If you are reading a story with anthros this should be expected, rather like a ghost story has at least one ghost. Dogs already have on their forelimbs: the entire set of hand bones, the wrist, elbow, and shoulder joints. The catch is that in the basic dog the finger bones are shorter, the ‘thumb’ lacks the muscles and tendon connections, the wrist is longer (what some call a ‘front knee’ is actually the wrist), and the upper arm bone is shorter by human comparison and with limited ability to rotate. We’re talking the alteration of a few features to create the ability to grasp something.

It’s funny, but spend time with enough dogs and you are certain to see them manipulate things with their paws, almost to the point of grabbing. I have watched my own curling their dexterous paws around objects and lifting them. Not enough to be considered fine motor skills, but DAMN impressive, none-the-less.

So why is the common adult reaction “How can they grab things without a thumb?” A reaction that happens even when writers have illustrated activities that couldn’t be done easily by a society without opposable digits: wearing clothing, lighting a cigarette, using a weapon, riding a mount, drinking from a tankard.

One issue might stem from the fact that anthropomorphic writers often use the terms paw in place of hand and footpaw in place of foot. This is part of world building, and is often used in a world built in absence of humanity. Consider an animalistic society, half of the world building is having it reflect their reality, not explicitly our own. Would they use hand or paw? I mean, I have asked my dogs and they stare at me before plopping their paw in my hand. We don’t know for certain what such a cast might use, but paw feels right to many of us and in an anthropomorphic world is intended to apply to a grasping, manipulating structure at the end of an arm. That is of course unless the degree is lesser and it is a real world animal narration like “Charlotte’s Web” or “The Art of Racing in the Rain”. It is usually clear in the setting which version is happening.

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From dog paw to half-anthro all the way to full-anthro paw.

Another fun fact, the general structure of the arm can be seen in a number of animals from reptiles and amphibians, to birds and fish. The bones are all modified versions, but the basic layout is preserved.

Posturing

EalaidhCampfire

“On the other paw … “

An anthropomorphic character will often be said to walk around on their footpaws. This posture is so commonly seen and accepted in children books and even classic fable artwork. Yet once we approach adulthood suddenly this is beyond the scoop of imagination. It is rejected, or categorized as a juvenile interest with few exceptions… say a certain foul-mouthed genetically modified space raccoon like creature? Apparently Rocket passes into the realm of acceptable for adult entertainment. As well as his anthropomorphic companion, Groot. Surprise, plants can be anthro too.

human dog comparison

Diagram of human and dog in relative positions. *

Animals and humans largely have corresponding bones throughout the bodies, including ‘tail bones’. Yes, humans have tails internally. The structure is a left over trait. In this above illustration showing a humans and dogs skeletons in similar poses it can be seen how many structures we truly have in common.

And yes, dogs and many other mammals can walk on their hind legs. It’s not hard to teach via positive reinforcement. I actually captured this behavior that Phoenix did naturally, now she can walk a few steps on her hind legs unsupported.

WalkingPhoenix

Phoenix walking bipedal

Among many examples, there are two border collies on Youtube who demonstrate a tremendous amount of tricks including going from a beg to a full stand on rear legs, bipedal walking forward and backward, carrying things balanced between their front limbs … seriously, Holly and Ace are AWESOME!

Now I can hear the rebuttals! “But they have been taught that! Animals don’t do it naturally.” Hrm, are we born capable of walking upright? Seems to me we crawl for a bit until we strengthen our core enough to be able to support and balance the bipedal posture. Walking upright is a learned behavior in humans, and one that can be taught to some quadrupeds. Bears and porcupines are wild animals who are occasionally seen walking upright from time to time.

Dog skeleton

Vintage anatomy diagram of dog skeleton *

Of course for bipedal posture to be a comfortable one there are a couple of changes. One is the neck attachment needs to be shifted to the base of the skull, most mammal spines attach at the back of the skull so the neck flows level. The other primary difference is the pelvic bone. Quadro’s have a narrow girdle, while a bipedal is typically wider/front facing. Again, since we’re talking alternate universe, or genetic manipulation, it’s within a stones throw. Writers are not creating anything that isn’t already there, just modifying it.

The Bare Bones of It

What does this all mean? That the bones are there, we’re just talking about altering connections, and developing support systems to create the form of a stable, bipedal animal … a humorous statement considering that humans are animals. Unless you think we are vegetables or minerals. Humans are in fact bipedal animals, pure and simple. Are we specialized? Absolutely. But we are still animals that followed an evolutionary course to obtain our form, abilities, behaviors, etc. There is nothing that says given enough time other animals might not follow a similar course. We already have seen animals using tools, solving complex puzzles, displaying empathy. But exploration of these will be part of this series.

Bottom line is structurally anthropomorphic characters are easily obtained from real world sources without much change. The leap is far narrower than what is required to believe in fire-breathing dragons, elves, dwarves, and sorcerers creating walking ice corpses … but who am I to speak? Just a humble anthro-writer of role models severely inappropriate for children. Til next time …

RoleModelEnfuego

Enfuego the chihuahua, a NOT safe for children creation of mine. She has been published in an adult humor anthro-anthology.

*Images marked with this symbol are not my artwork, used in Fair Use for information purposes.

Next topic: Getting Lippy!

The Anthropomorphic Stigma

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“This wouldn’t quite fit in our Fantasy department, and though we have a section for young people, I think this story would work better in a dedicated children’s magazine.”

“I would read the shit out of this, but I wouldn’t tell my friends I’m reading it.”

“Aww, this story has an animal in the lead. What a cute children’s story!”

EalaidhCampfire

What do all of the above have in common? They are actual feedback I have received on various pieces of my writing throughout the years. They are also proof of the bane of my existence as a writer. That bane is a blanket stigma that any work that includes animals (either a real one narrating through thoughts, or anthropomorphs that walk and talk like humans) is automatically relegated to the children’s story category. Yes–there are some that have managed to get listed outside of the young readers age group, but by and large the industry and public reaction is only young readers can possibly be interested in animal MCs.

Don’t believe me? Just try searching for Anthropomorphic Adult works. Or better yet, try submitting your own attempts and see what you get.

So, let me illustrate this for those who might not see the problem. It’s like having an epic Tolkien level world building in your mind all in high tech, 3D animation software so realistic you can see the hairs on your MC’s head move! You pitch it to a movie exec and they say, “Nice work. Here’s your box of 16 crayons and some construction paper. This should be enough to make it happen. Run along and play.”

Ididntdoit

Pheonix doesn’t understand why she isn’t allowed to mature.

Ok, yes, the children’s entertainment industry is loaded with many wonderful works that adults enjoy. I am a huge fan of many of them. So why aren’t we just happy playing with our box of crayons?

Because there are limits to what you can do with younger audience pieces.

There is a material maturity cap. Sure you can push the envelope, but at the end of the day there is a line you cannot cross, and a box you are not permitted to go outside of … all because your character is not human.

DonQuilypsosLastStandMixedFinished

“What do you mean I can’t say @#%?”

Alien? No problem! Get as adult as you like.

Werewolf? Well … that was human, so no biggie! Go for it!

DarknessAndLight

“Piss off, armor puppy! I’m a werewolf, I can say whatever the fuck I want!”

The spirit of a beloved dog becoming a sentient angel … (that was the story behind the opening remark). The unpublished short story that included a graphic description of animal abuse in the beginning–that’s just fine for a dedicated children’s lit, apparently. <facepalm>

CollieMemorial

“Sure, I get it. No adult would possibly admit to falling to shit about the loss of their pet. Ok, instead of my purpose of comforting them, I’ll go pander to the little kiddies. Just let me get my butterflies and rainbows.”

So yes, this topic seriously gets my goat as I go about creating the stories that I, as a fully mature adult, want to read.

HawthornandFlint

“They said don’t go that way, it’s only for the experienced, you know, mature, warriors only. We got fur, so we need not apply. Good thing I don’t give a shit what they say! ONWARDS!”

What it basically tells me is that my preference of character is not worthy of mature material. That Animal=Immature. What’s amazingly sad is that the fantasy genre is where this seems the most firmly rooted. An odd thing when one considers that fantasy readers are pre-set to toss reality out the window. Yet the industry only rarely allows an animal-centric book to enter above the children ranks. There are a few recent ones, “The Art of Racing in the Rain” comes to mind. But these are rare gems. I have to chuckle at “Watership Down” being considered a kid’s book–which some do consider it. That is a tome of a book with a glossary with unique rabbit lingo and an entire rabbit-centric mythology going on there. I don’t buy that Adam’s wrote it for children. Nor his “Plague Dogs”, a dark exploration of the danger of pathogens. How many young readers are going to be able dissect the core of “Animal Farm”? Yes, there are some advanced reading kids, but to get the sociological core of it is not a general grade school concept.

So why is human MC good, animal MC bad? Sorry, couldn’t help the reference.

PhoenixDemonDog

“Annnd how may I make you cringe today?”

I can assure you that there are actually plenty of adults out there that love anthropomorphic works. They flock to the children’s stuff that makes it out there because that is all we can find! “My Little Ponies” has an astonishing adult following including aiding in bringing some adults out of the gender closet. Serious mad props there! When the “Lion King” came out there was, and still is, a massive community of adults who create art, fanfiction, and role-play stories in that realm. Many of this include deep, mature content. And by that I don’t imply smut, I mean deep philosophy that has no place in a kid’s story. There are conventions across the nation where adults spend thousands on their costumes to walk around in. These cons are on par with other media focused ones–so don’t tell me adults aren’t interested. They are, and they crave older themed works that don’t have the kid maturity cap. The stigma cap bars the way.

scheming

“What are you doing?”  “Me? Just weaving a complex message into the narrative. Nothing critical or anything.”

So why is that children will pick up a book about anthropomorphic creatures and just go with the flow. Yet, in general an adult will look at the same story and in the first paragraph get stuck on pondering how the armor wearing dog is possibly able to hold her bow without thumbs? (I get this a lot. So much so that I now ALWAYS include a THUMB reference in the first paragraph of my anthro works to help the imagination-challenged.) Why? Why doesn’t a child have a hard time getting an animal world but the adult mind resists?

I wish I knew. But I am at a loss as to why. And before it is said, this is not isolated to my own writing. This post covers common venting from other anthro writers. Our interest is on the fringe. Our interest is regarded as a marginal thing. The impression we are left with is that if we want our work to be seen, we need to make the characters human so that readers will be capable of connecting.

We need to make them human …

Envy

“I like humans. In all of the mortal realm there’s no better stew of emotions and ambitions so ripe for corruption.”

The take away from this sadly ventures into a wider scope. One that reveals a deeper problem with our society. If society only believes that children have the potential to look through different eyes and adult do not … well, ok, just look at the news. We prefer familiarity and dislike being challenged to truly look through another’s eyes. Writing is the perfect medium for us to explore other perspectives, and yet there is a caution not to stray too far from the norm. Removing the potential for something more mature because of an MC choice is on par with the frustration of those who try to write a non-child’s story staring a child, or a non-YA featuring a teen. These are unfair leaps of logic. A child can be the star of an adult story–try to market one and see how hard THAT is. If you see humans as merely another animal and thus animals are not that different after all … you tread a very difficult path that the general human ego is not willing to swallow!

Well, guess where I dare to tread! I sharpen my word axe and prepare to cut my niche nice and deep because I know that the voices of my characters have value and worth maturity. Some have found homes, some have yet to be seen as valuable contributions. But in the end I refuse to make the something they are not. Human.

Anthropomorphic, don’t be afraid to see outside of your species box. That level of empathy is important, especially within your species in an age with such social disparity.

Brass-DeathPortalLowRes

Are you ready to see through the eyes of something else? When you are, I’ll be waiting.

All artwork in this post belongs to me.