Yesterday we unpacked the meaning behind that most dreaded of zookeeper-slurs, "the bunny hugger." It's a term that gets banded about, often aimed at people who think they are loving or helping animals, but are often doing the opposite. A classic literary example? Lennie, from Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. It's fun to pet the soft rabbits... until you pet them too hard.
Among keepers, it also has a second meaning. It refers to someone who excessively humanizes their animals, attributing lots of emotions to them and treating them like children. These are the keepers who throw birthday parties for their animals, who have elaborate naming contests for them, and who always go on about "their babies."
Some keepers (and I'm looking at you, Europe) find this off-putting, some going as far as sickening. They think that it perverts the animal, taking away its dignity and treating it like it's a house pet or a toy. These are the keepers who go on about "the message" that is being sent by treating animals as anything other than wild animals. To this end, they often refer to their American counterparts as bunny huggers. Not surprisingly, this mentality is also more common among aquarists and herp keepers.
The keepers in question resist this labeling, saying that there is nothing inappropriate about their actions. By "humanizing" the animals, as it were, with naming contests, birthday parties, and the like, they make them more relatable to the public as a whole and drive more interest in the life and wellbeing of the individual animal. That, in turn, can be used to educate and inspire people about the species as a whole. It's a lot easier to get people enthusiastic about a tiger they know as an individual, the argument goes, rather than tigers as a concept in Asia.
Besides, they say, we're zookeepers because we like animals. Why pretend otherwise?
It can be dangerous to over-humanize zoo animals to the public. That's the mentality which may lead to guests hopping fences or trying to pet animals, sometimes with disastrous results. Focusing on what we think the animal would like based on what we would like can also lead to poor husbandry. A person, for example, might think that having lots of friends to live with would be an ideal social set-up. For a solitary animal like a clouded leopard, that might be the definition of hell.
Still, as long as an animal's needs are being met and it is being presented in a manner that preserves its dignity and has an educational message, I don't see anything wrong with a little bunny-hugging now and then. I've eaten my share of birthday cake for zoo animals too over the years.