Why Are Kids So Crazy About Animals?

Yeah, zoos are fun. So are cartoons. And I certainly see the appeal of a teddy bear.

But why are kids so over-the-top crazy about animals? I am especially struck by the fact that some of the most popular cartoon and children’s-book animals are among the least appealing animals in real life. Mice, for instance. And pigs and rats and bears and fish.

Here’s what I read the other day in the class newsletter my daughter brought home from kindergarten:

Post Office Money Update: After a vote among all four K classes about how to spend this money, “Animals” received the most votes. (Other choices were Kids, Grown-Ups, and the Earth.) Please let us know if you are aware of any reputable organizations which are devoted to animals.

I wouldn’t expect kids to want to give any of their money to grown-ups. And while kids may be helping to drive awareness of climate change, “the Earth” is a pretty amorphous target.

But I have to say that I am constantly surprised by how devoted kids are to animals, even if that devotion doesn’t seem to last into adulthood for most of us. (See, for instance, the dearth of interest in animals in this philanthropy bleg.)

Can anyone explain it?

I have a few rough thoughts:

1. Animals are simply cute and cuddly — at least in the abstract, and in cartoons.

2. Animals seem vulnerable, and kids want to take care of them — or, conversely:

3. Animals seem vulnerable, and kids want to control them.

4. Animals are a sort of proxy for kids in that kids are relatively powerless compared to adults whereas animals are relatively powerless compared to people.


My favorite charity, Heifer International (http://www.heifer.org), is devoted to animals and animal husbandry. They don't rescue animals from being eaten or fund expensive surgeries for disabled pets, but raise money to buy livestock for communities in need. Unlike fish, give a man a cow and he can eat and drink for a long time...

While their focus is on developing nations, they do have a US organic farming initiative. I'm not sure if they would fit Michael's "US Only" criterion.


Kids love animals because they like the play with their food.


I agree with commenter #8, Frank, about animals being able to serve as abstract replacements for people. I used to draw a single-panel comic ( just for fun ) that featured animals pretty often. A few of those comics could have been re-written to feature people instead, but I choose animals. Why? I think it was probably because with animals it is possible to talk about human situations ( animals serving as abstract replacements for people ) while more-easily staying lighthearted.

Dubner's thoughts on this seem pretty good to me. I also think that animals being almost like real-life superheroes can't hurt the likability factor for kids. examples: Cheetahs running ~70 MPH, birds being able to fly, chameleons' ability to change colors, etc



Following comments 8, 24, 34... When I was a kid, I was never into dolls. Just not. But I acted out all the modeling of caregiving behavior on my stuffed and real animals - holding them, washing them, feeding them, putting them to bed, giving them "medicine," etc. The animals also let me play quietly more or less by myself, which I liked, and they exhibited a lot more patience and friendliness than some adults. Except for the dog that bit me, which still didn't turn me off animals in general.
I think the ability to care for and empathize with something unlike oneself is a big part of being human. Also, as other posters have hinted, when one wants to help or take care of animals, it is almost unequivocally good; the value judgments involved in helping people are much more complex (ideas of pride and/or deservingness, see also the namecalling in the welfare debate).
Plus animals are cool, and simple curiosity should not be underestimated - that goes for adults too.



I think the reason(s) children like animals so much are pretty simple... They are often cute/visually appealing, and they are usually very personified/anthropomorphised.

Not that I'd be against it if the reasons were as noble/inquisitive as some of the ones posited above.


I think this mentality only exists in certain countries. I was born and raised in Asia where animals were practically all around. Cows, chickens, pigs, dogs, you name them, I lived with them. Yet as a child, I have never seen them as cute and cuddly animals just because I actually see them get killed everyday for food. I think children see them in such way in the United States because they didn't have to associate them with negative scenarios, they see them as pets that adults adore. Adults love them, has to be cute, right? Children don't associate cockroaches with cuteness.


They're like us without all the confusing words. Plus , soft, or slimy, or feathered. Hard to improve on that.

But here's someone who didn't really grow out of it . . .


It might seem odd, but I think the post-Freudian Melanie Klein might provide a clue. Her concept of the relational object applies very well to animals.


My fourteen month old is much less interested in anthropamorphised dressed-up cartoon animals in books than in ones that appear as themselves. So she's very excited by pictures (real or cartoon) of cats eating, sleeping and in one case rolling over and over which she shows me and mimes the roling with her hand. She's not at all interested in ones that appear in hats or clothes as proxy people. She's also distictly more thrilled with cats as she's famiar with the real thing, and, to a certain extent dogs. Sheep are rather less entrancing (though bizarrely she's thrilled with elephants and points them out in pictures although we don;t have one of them).


I think adults are still immensely fascinated by animals. Look at the popularity of Whale watching, snorkeling, scuba-diving, etc... Kids might like flipping through the pages of National Geographic, but the magazine is written for adults. Adults are equally excited to see any kind of wild life on a trip to a national park, or simply driving through the country-side. The more exotic, or rare, the animal the bigger the fascination. Animals are something adults and children can both enjoy together. They're both pretty content just watching them. Granted an Adult will get bored much faster than a child, but not in all cases. There's a whole universe of bird watchers out there, and they're by in large very enthusiastic adults. That reminds me, ever watched the film "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill"? Yet another example of Adults perfectly fascinated with animals. I think it's silly to generalize and say this fascination just goes away in adulthood.



My fourteen month old is obsessively attached to our cat but hysterically excited by all animals - and apparently almost oblivious to other toddlers her age. As are many of her peers. I think it's something to do with self identity. They still thenk they are the only human being in the world and that everyone else is just an uninteresting replica being. Animals, however, are something different and fascinating and wildly exciting

a carnivore.

Maybe it's because they don't connect animals with food ("You mean chicken nuggets are made from REAL chickens! Are Pixie Stix made from Pixies? Are Mars bars made on Mars?), or disease (mad cow, Bubonic plague), or mercury poisoning.


I think kids just haven't lost their sense of connection with all other living beings, bipedal or otherwise, whereas many adults have an artificial sense of separation. It's easy for them to feel a special bond with another creature, even more so than with a member of their own species, who carry innumerable complexities.


You mention TV in the post - I was recently thinking about this same topic in regards to music. As a new parent, I've noticed a large percentage of music made for children centers on the topics of animals or food, yet almost no music developed for adults is about animals or food.


I wonder how much of it is sort of a circular re-inforcement? The assumption here is that the reason so many children's books, toys, media, etc. involve animals is b/c children love animals. Is it possible that children love animals b/c they've been fed so many animals in their books, toys, and media?

Who knows how it started, but perhaps at this point, it's flowing the other way.

Dr. Doolittle

I'm surprised that you didn't suggest that kids are practicing social behavior.


It must be something instinctive. Supposedly, 80 percent of a toddler's dreams are of animals.

My 18-month-old will start jumping up and down clapping and squealing with delight if he sees a bird, whether in reality or on the TV. I doubt he's empathizing with it or saying in baby code: "help, help, I'm being oppressed!"


Using an evolutionary psychological perspective, many scholars have suggested that children's fascination with animals stems from our ancestor's need to categorize and quickly distinguish potential predators from potential prey. Although today's children aren't likely to encounter lions in daily life, they are primed to be curious.

Barrett's argument is much more eloquent than mine. See: http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/anthro/faculty/barrett/barrett-EPH.pdf.


Last night while gardening my six year old found a beetle and wanted to bring it inside. I said no. He said, but he is my friend. I love beetles. He was tender and kind to it. He even loves insects!


I work in philanthropy, and my boss told me that more people give money to organizations that support animals than ones that work with, say, children. So I'd say that it doesn't stop at childhood.