Social equality comes up over and over again in history textbooks and lectures. Humans are judged based on their skin color, race, and even their socioeconomic statuses. For better or worse, not all humans are viewed equally. The same is true for animals. There are some animals that appear to be more “popular” with humans than others, just as animals are often labeled as either “good” or “bad.” Humans label animals based on who poses the biggest threat to power. Following a Machiavellian example, humans are most afraid of those most similar to themselves, and thus those who have the greatest potential threat. In essence, most humans only interact with nature in a Machiavellian way—always afraid.
I. The Media Corrupts the Minds
The media has selected a few animals and always portrayed them in a negative connotation, thus influencing human’s views on animals. Movies that focus on animals typically have the “good guys” and the “bad guys”. However, the bad guys are usually the same each time. Most water horror movies like Jaws and Open Water focus on the shark. There are more options for the land villains, but they typically include bears, lions, and wolves. All of these animals are classified as mega fauna: large, much larger than humans. We naturally feel threatened by these animals and our impulse is to put them in another category. We create an us versus them mentality where we as humans can band together to take over the tough animals. Machiavelli agrees with this point, stating in The Prince that a prince must assert dominance over everyone, otherwise he will be attacked. He believes that no one is truly loyal to the prince, which is why he needs to constantly assert dominance over both his subjects and enemies in order to scare them into being obedient. Similarly, the media causes people to fear certain animals. Because they are strong and capable of taking over, we assert our dominance over them to show that we humans truly are the princes of nature.
II. Sympathy Towards Those We Recognize
Humans tend to like qualities similar to the ones that we have. For example, dogs are man’s best friend and are known for being playful and loving, two qualities that are valued in humans. Disney uses animals in their films, while still keeping the human characteristics present to keep audience sympathy. In Bambi, the “evil” animals are not the traditional mega fauna mentioned earlier. Ironically, humans are the villains in Bambi. Almost every bad occurrence in the film stems from some kind of human involvement. We typically categorize humans into good and bad in regards to how we treat fellow humans, not in the treatment of animals. The main character in Bambi is a deer. Although deer can be common to see on the side of the road, seeing them in nature is quite uncommon. However, they are still large animals with huge antlers, which fits the human definition of “scary.” However, the innocence of watching a fawn grow up and into adulthood makes the audience sympathize with this creature, know matter what our upbringing.
The Lion King takes a similar approach, with lions being the main characters. As viewers, we develop an attachment for the lions as they are personified in a way that humans can relate to. Although they kill for food, we do not view it as bad thing because Mufassa explains to the audience about the “circle of life.” By this simple explanation, the killing seems acceptable. Additionally, the audience never actually sees a lion in the act of killing, but only hears Simba or Mufassa speak of it. Also, humans are natural omnivores; we kill for our food. This forms an unexplainable bond that makes us understand the lions. Similar to Bambi, we are also watching a young lion grow up and learn the ways of being at the top of the food chain. Although Disney and the media seem to tame these animals, they would frighten most people in seen in the wild. This is partially because of their size, and also partially because they do share some of our beloved human qualities. Because they are similar to us, we fear them. We become paranoid that they can hurt us, and so in a Machiavellian way, we use Disney to portray them as innocent creatures that cannot do us harm.
III. The Threat to Power
Machiavelli argues in The Prince that any good leader must always kill those who are a threat to his throne, because they are not loyal and can try to overthrow the government at any time. Humans have this fear, although it may be subconscious. Lions for example, are at the top of the food chain in the African savannah. As humans, we have no natural predators, which technically makes us the top of the chain. Humans have risen to the top, but if the lions increase their population enough, they could be strong enough to kill us off. This paranoia causes us to fear them and portray them mostly in negative connotations (Lion King as the exception). By doing this, we are distancing ourselves from the creatures we fear. We are also killing off many of those who are a threat. Although often not on purpose, as we our ruining the environment, we are also destroying the habitats of these mega fauna, reducing their population. This could be a subconscious method of “killing all who resent [our] rule” (The Prince). Scar is the prime example for this. When he finally does come to rule Pride Rock, he is constantly fearing an uprising and people realizing that he is an awful king. He never allows anyone to even mention Mufassa’s name. Both Zazoo and the hyenas mutter the taboo name, and Scar goes crazy. This is because he fears losing his throne. He did not complete the Machiavelli task of killing everyone when conquering a new land, and thus many of his subjects resent his rule. This reflects the humans views on animals—constantly scared of a takeover.
IV. Popularity of Animals
There are animals we are similar to, animals we fear (although these might be the same), animals we laugh at, and animals we simply don’t even know exist. Some animals somehow gain more “popularity” than other animals. For example, most people have heard of squirrels and sheep, but most have probably not heard of the water ouzel. John Muir writes in The Mountains of California about the beauty and gracefulness of the water ouzel, the squirrel, and the mountain sheep. He also chooses to identify himself with the latter, praising every detail of the marvelous creature. The water ouzel is written as being childlike and carefree, “a singularly joyous and lovable little fellow,” allowing for human sympathy. But why aren’t animals like this more widely known? It may be because its appearance is so unlike a human’s. Although we might possess similar childlike, carefree traits, our physical appearance is nothing like the tiny bird. Because we rely so much on our sight, we simply can’t relate to a bird that is so different from us. We can picture ourselves much more like a dog, who has legs like we do, or a lion, who rules like we do. In addition, humans do not feel threatened by the water ouzel. It is a small bird that plays and lives a rather “charmed life.” For this reason, it does not have the tough body of one who needs to fight to survive. Humans have nothing to fear from this tiny little water ouzel, so many do not even know it exists.
However, another way for an animal to gain popularity is to be completely opposite from humans. Octopi, for example, are not even remotely similar to us. They do not even have legs, they have tentacles; and they have eight of them. They live underwater and are definitely not mammals. Animals like these have also gained popularity in the human world. These did not gain fame through a threat to power however. There is no Machiavellian threat; it is simply that their differences are so great that humans have taken notice. It appears that in order to be widely known in the human world, an animal must either be similar in features and behavior to a human, or starkly opposite, but no where in between.
Although Machiavelli wrote The Prince to discuss how princes should rule over their kingdoms, his novel applies to the natural world as well. The prince does not always have to be a human, but it has been for so long that humans are terrified of it being anything else. To stifle this fear, humans use different techniques to try to put animals “in their place.” Through the use of media to try to fictionally tame animals, unintentionally killing animals’ habitats, and remembering mostly those who pose a threat to power, humans are constantly in fear of losing our place on top. Humans only interact with nature in a Machiavellian way, paranoid and power-hungry.