What exactly is an ‘animal’?

Bierema, A.M.K., & Schwartz, R.S. (2015). Undergraduate Biology Students’ Interpretations of the Term “Animal”. Anthrozoös, 28:3, 371-383.

‘Animal’ is a term that can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Typically, it is defined either scientifically or in a more informal way. This study explores how undergraduates taking a biology-related course define the word.

The study was comprised of a survey then an interview. Fifty-nine participants from the same university in the United States were presented with a survey, with all the students being in the third or higher year of their biology-related course. The survey consisted of five parts. Part A asked for demographic information and B asked for the students to list 5 types of animals. Part C then asked students to list 5 types of animals, but to make sure to have their lists as representative of the entire diversity of the animal kingdom as possible. Part D involved a selection of photographs. For each one, the students were asked if the picture was of an animal, with Part E being in the same format as D, but instead used written terms instead of photographs. Twenty-five of the 59 students went on to participate in one-on-one interviews, during which their answers to the survey could be further evaluated.

The term ‘animal’ is defined according to a person’s background knowledge and experience

The initial definitions of ‘animal’ coined by the undergraduates swayed between the scientific definition and that of ‘ordinary people’. The participants typically began their responses by thinking of vertebrates, mostly mammals, as their initial visualisations of the term. However, after being directly told to include a broader selection of the animal kingdom, the students included more invertebrates in defining ‘animal’. The students were not reluctant to regard humans as animals. During the post-survey interviews, students noted that their ability to think of examples of animals was reliant on recent experiences, with their desire to get the correct result being based on their courses.

Overall, it was evident that there was not one universal definition held by every student. Instead, each interpreted ‘animal’ slightly differently. Furthermore, the study showed that their definitions of the term ‘animal’ depended on the circumstances they were in at the time.  

World Animal Protection’s view

We believe that understanding human’s attitudes to animals is critical, only then can we develop programmes to help protect animal welfare and educate people in an effective way.