Wiley foxes and wise owls, deceptive snakes, and elephants with impeccable memory…
We all attribute human-like qualities onto animals. This phenomenon, called anthropomorphism, has deep roots in our perceptions of nature and the cosmos. Every society does it.
Perhaps you see a compassionate soul when you look into your dog’s chocolately-brown eyes, or an autonomous freethinker in your cat. But have you ever related a wild animal to your favourite sexual taboo?
Dreams, dinner, disease, and demons
There are three tapir species in the Americas. They are large rainforest mammals hunted by many indigenous peoples.
Amazonian and Amerindian folklore render tapirs as possessing human spirits and existing as powerful sex-symbols .
Tapirs are depicted as “oversexed demons  as well as “trickster-like” figures  with uncontrollable passion. Their sex is ambiguous – gender association varies by community – but tapirs are commonly portrayed as masculine “seducers of women” .
Perhaps the sizeable genitalia of the male tapir are anthropomorphized. Thus the animal is constructed as a wildly sexualised creature .
This mythic relationship between tapirs and humans surfaces in shamanistic dream interpretation and folklore. Besides sex, the topics most often associated with tapirs are hunting, food, and illness.
Among the Kagwahiv people of Brazil, a shaman’s dream of sexual organs forecasts the capture of a tapir because the tapir is an adulterer in mythology .
A story of the Peruvian Ashaninka people involves a woman who seduced a prominent local man and then transformed into a tapir. The man became ill and died soon after, and the myth evolved into a lesson about the consequences of indiscriminate sex .
Tukanoan shamans in Colombia ask ill patients about their dreams and what they have eaten. Patients’ dreams of threatening fauna, such as a giant tapir, are believed to reveal the disease as a consequence of over-hunting or broken food taboos .
Food is equated with sex: hunting and cooking are linked to mating by their association with pheromones and scent. Visions of tapirs signify the ill patient’s taboo sexual fantasies or disregard for the Tukanoan exogamic traditions .
A Nicaraguan Rama Indian narrative recounts the tale of a woman who runs away from her husband to live with a tapir, and together they produce a son. The loyal paramour provided sustenance for the woman until he was slain by her jealous husband. In this story, food and eating are again construed as a metaphor for copulation; the tapir is the only being that can truly satisfy the woman .
Plump, drooling, jungle beast: It’s what’s on the ‘inside’ that counts
For many from cultures with other perspectives, it may seem strange to associate a plump, drooling, jungle beast with human desire and sexuality.
During sex, however, humans are most like animals. It should come as no surprise that sexual behaviors are imposed onto animals in some societies.
Further, Amerindian and Amazonian shamanistic cultures generally consider animals as physically different but spiritually equal to humans. The souls of the spirit world embody and freely transform between humans, plants, and animals. These beliefs are derived from dominant animism ideology that shapes Amazonian indigenous philosophy and cosmology .
The Warao people of Venezuela and Guyana are known to avoid hunting big game species, such as tapirs, because they are considered “people of the forest with blood like humans” .
The unconditional human condition
The tapir exemplifies “the nature/culture gestalt” , transcending the natural world into the realm of the human condition. Though it is but one organism among thousands that humans anthropomorphize.
Why is this tendency to project human-like traits onto non-humans ubiquitous? Some contend that it arises from the human propensity to infer the mental states of others, a necessary skill for which to understand the intentions of peers . It is a by-product of the process that led to human self-awareness and our need to relate to others experientially.
Ecological and cultural heritage at stake for tapir steak
Tapirs are endangered due to habitat loss and over-hunting. If they become extinct, the rainforests will lose not only a keystone species, but also the animal-human-spiritual relationships associated with them. And it is perhaps these fundamental human conceptions and intangible relationships to nature that primarily underlie motivations to care for our environment.
Besides, a world without tapirs is unsatisfying on so many levels!
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