Some of my earliest writing advice was to beware anthropomorphism. Whenever an animal flew, stalked, or swam into an essay, I’d receive that warning at least once in any critique. Having come to writing in middle age after experiences as a naturalist, park ranger, field biologist, and graduate student of ecology, this happened often. Early on, I accepted the admonishment as a cardinal rule of nonfiction writing, an extension of always tell the truth. To write animals with human characteristics, motivations, or—gasp—emotions, was to lie.  

It seems simple enough. In creative nonfiction we don’t lie. We may write other humans, even strangers, as long as we do our best to learn what we can on multiple levels and from various sources, cognizant of power dynamics and wary of stereotypes. But if non-human animals are involved, we’ve learned, best treat them as objects, just part of the scenery. Humans are so special, so uniquely evolved in the animal kingdom that we couldn’t possibly share anything beyond the most rudimentary biology.

Which is, of course, nonsense.

Science seems to be coming around faster than writing conventions, thanks to animal behaviorists and neurobiologists who’ve continued to wonder, ask new questions, and—like any diligent writer—reject assumptions. The closer and the longer they’ve looked at other animals, the more those traits we’d thought exclusively human—complex languages, tool use, self-consciousness, play, reasoning, foresight, remembering, deceit, feeling grief and joy—have been observed in other animals. Not imagined or assumed, but scientifically confirmed. Not just in the big-brained primates and dolphins, but also in a variety of other mammals, birds, bees, octopuses… Which isn’t to say that all animals are the same any more than all humans are the same. But we are finally learning that to assume any behaviors, emotions, or motivations are exclusively human is as presumptive, unscientific, and biased as the judgement of anthropomorphism was originally intended to avoid.

In her 2017 book Mozart’s Starling, Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s adopted European starling Carmen is a well-developed central character. Haupt did her homework: she researched the natural history and typical behaviors of Sturnus vulgaris. But Carmen’s characterization works not because she’s depicted as a generic starling. Haupt acknowledges her starling-ness and recognizes Carmen as the complex individual she is—an individual with a unique personality, motivations, and quirks. Not her humanity, her Carmen-ness.

Other animals may not be able to tell us their stories in words, but that doesn’t mean we can’t glean them anyway. Haupt understands this: “I look back to my naïve early notion that I would obtain a starling to study in support of my own ideas, the story I thought I wanted to tell. But when I manage to hush my own voice and just listen, I discover that Carmen has become not just part of the story, but the storyteller, whispering in my ear, telling me what needs to be written, to be spoken, to be sung in to the world.”

We need not bring wild animals into our homes to write them well. We can, sometimes, go to them. In her 2015 book The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness, Sy Montgomery uses classic immersion journalism to get to know her subject, going beyond the reports of scientists and behaviorists to forge her own connections with individual octopuses by volunteering in the New England Aquarium. In naturalist circles there’s a concept called “dirt time,” wherein you can’t become a good naturalist (wildlife tracker, birder, etc.) just by reading field guides and taking the occasional nature walk. You have to put in long hours in the field. In exploring her curiosity about the mysterious octopus other, Montgomery puts in her dirt time in spades. First at the aquarium with multiple octopuses, and later as a deep sea diver seeking her subjects in their natural habitat. The result, for the reader, is not the detachment of an academic paper nor the fanciful questions of a one-time reporter, but the deep and informed introspections of an intimate.

Montgomery watches, reaches out and touches, ever aware that gaze and touch are mutual. She is touched, and she is watched by the other. In reuniting with an octopus who, though elderly and ailing, reaches up to grasp and hold her hands, Montgomery writes, “The reason she surfaced was abundantly clear. She had not interacted with us, or tasted our skin, or seen us above her tank for ten full months. She was sick and weak. … Yet, despite everything, we knew in that moment that Octavia had not only remembered us and recognized us; she had wanted to touch us again.” Out of context this reflection sounds like the nasty old a-word. At this point in Montgomery’s book, having gleaned both the research and the depth of her connections with this and other octopuses, we understand the moment as empathy.

Is it possible to write an animal well without displaying your dirt time, without bringing a reader along on your journey to intimacy? One story that comes to mind is Brian Doyle’s Martin Marten. Yes, it’s fiction. Yes, the American marten in question is characterized as thinking in words and sentences, having complex thought processes and emotions. But who’s to say, anymore, that those are exclusively human? These weasel kin in Doyle’s tale remain distinctly weaselly.

As a naturalist who has both watched and researched martens, I can tell that Doyle put in his dirt time. My guess is that he watched and got to know one marten in particular, but if not, that he spent long hours watching marten videos, reading behavioral reports, and using those as jumping off points to wonder further and then to empathize, to imagine himself in their skins, not dress them up in his. Doyle’s martens are as unique and well-developed characters, as realistic and believable, in my mind, as his humans. And, lest you begin to doubt him, he retorts right there on the page, “We don’t have good words yet for what animals feel; we hardly have more than wholly inadequate labels for our own tumultuous and complex emotions and senses. It’s wrong to say that animals do not feel what we feel; indeed, they may feel far more than we do and in far different emotional shades. Given that their senses are often a hundred times more perceptive than ours, could not their emotional equipment be similarly vast?” Why not?

Writing the other is a delicate business; we’ll never truly know what it’s like to experience the world from inside another’s skin. We’ll sometimes get it wrong. But when writing other animals, it’s time to push back against that tired human judgement born of superiority and insularity. We are all animals, still, and we each engage with the sensory world in ways uniquely our own, no matter the shapes of the skins in which we reside. Perhaps it is time to follow the leads of storytellers such as Haupt, Montgomery, and Doyle, to get to know our animal kin as the complex beings they are. To put in our dirt time, then step back and listen, empathize, and wonder. Our stories will be richer for it.

Heather Durham is the author of the 2019 nature memoir Going Feral: Field Notes on Wonder and Wanderlust, and a second ecopsychological essay collection titled Wolf Tree, now available for preorder from Homebound Publications. Heather holds a master of science in environmental biology and a master of fine arts in creative nonfiction, and currently works behind the scenes at Wilderness Awareness School in the foothills of the Washington Cascades. Learn more at