From the time we are very young, we hear stories and watch cartoons in which animals play the leading characters. Over time, many of those animal protagonists show certain traits that are played out repeatedly. Think of the sly fox; the jolly, bumbling bear; the sneaky, malicious snake; the cheerful bluebird; the helpful (or nosy) mother hen.
While the animals may differ from one culture to another, animal stereotypes can be found in just about every one. Some stereotypes may begin with a grain of truth, but as with any other stereotype, individual differences can get lost when we try to generalize traits across an entire group of our furry, scaly or feathered friends. In fact, some of the stereotypes have no basis in truth.
Before you try to cuddle up to a koala, swim with a smiling dolphin or squish another spider, read about 10 animals that completely defy their stereotypes.
With their big, fluffy ears, furry-looking bodies and sleepy nature, it's easy to understand how koalas have gained a reputation as cuddly creatures. We've all seen pictures of koalas clinging to tree trunks with their curious faces turned to the camera, almost the same way a baby human clings to her mother or father. But while they may be cute, wild koalas shouldn't be cuddled!
For starters, koala fur, although it looks soft and fluffy, is actually thick and coarse – much more like sheep's wool than kitten fur. Their fur repels rain and protects koalas from extreme heat and cold. Koalas are also perfectly equipped to spend their lives in trees. Both their front and rear limbs are muscular and strong, with long, sharp claws on every paw to help them grip tree barks and groom their coarse fur [source: Australian Koala Foundation].
While koalas may not be aggressive by nature, a wild koala will use its claws and teeth to defend itself if it feels threatened. And one way to make it feel threatened is to try to pick it up. Our natural instinct may be to lift a koala the way we would hold a small child, but in order to feel secure, koalas need something to grip when they are picked up [source: Australian Koala Foundation]. Unless your skin is tougher than tree bark, better leave this to trained professionals.
They're furry. They can fly. And they're actually kind of cute. Bats may get bad PR, but they do a lot of good. They pollinate all kinds of fruit trees and consume thousands of biting, disease-spreading, crop-destroying insects in a single night [source: Fears]. And no, they will not get tangled in your hair. So how did this myth originate?
Maybe it's because they fly and many people consider them ugly, thus attributing all kinds of mayhem to them. Bram Stoker's novel Dracula introduced the idea of bats transforming into vampires and included a passage about a vampire bat draining all the blood from a mare, despite the fact that vampire bats are very small, live only in Central and South America (not Transylvania), and need no more than two tablespoons of blood each day [sources: Miller, Mulvaney.]
Bat World Sanctuary speculates that any bat swooping near your head is most likely making a beeline (or is that a batline?) for a mosquito hovering right above you. And since the vast majority of bat species eat only insects or fruit, they have no desire to wrap themselves up in your hair. Bats are excellent navigators, using both eyesight -- they're not blind, either -- and sophisticated echolocation to avoid objects as thin as a fishing wire, like your hair. One researcher tried to get bats to tangle in his hair, but they avoided it [source: Sophasarun].
We're not likely to take it as a compliment if someone refers to our room as a pigsty, or -- even worse --calls us a pig. But once you get past the common misconceptions about these smart, social animals, you may just want to smile and say "thank you."
In fact, pigs are among the cleanest animals on the farm. They are incapable of sweating (another stereotype we can put to rest), and given the choice, they won't defecate anywhere near their sleeping or eating areas. Pigs are also smarter and more easily trained than dogs or cats [sources: The Humane Society, PBS Nature]. So why the bad rap?
Since pigs can't sweat, they often roll in mud to cool off. The mud also protects their fair pink skin from sunburn and bug bites. Their affinity for mud can give pigs an admittedly dusty and grimy appearance, but if they become truly smelly or covered in anything other than mud, chances are we have only ourselves to blame. On large factory farms, pigs are often overfed and confined to small, overcrowded spaces, preventing them from following their naturally clean instincts and contributing to the stereotype of pigs as dirty animals [sources: The Humane Society, PBS Nature].
Remember "Flipper"? The popular TV show about a Florida park ranger and his family's pet dolphin aired from 1964-1967 and in reruns for many years thereafter. Portrayed by five different bottlenose dolphins, Flipper was depicted as happy, intelligent and friendly, helping the ranger and his sons through various adventures.
The stereotype of dolphins as friendly and happy has been reinforced by aquarium shows featuring trained dolphins and by "swim with the dolphins" experiences offered by aquariums, theme parks and private tour boat operators. But in fact, dolphins are incapable of changing their facial expressions. What appears to be a smile is actually a result of their permanently curved mouths and the physical configuration of their jaws, and their expression remains the same whether they are performing with a trainer or aggressively charging a rival [sources: Marino, National Geographic, Szokan].
As for their happy demeanor, activist and former dolphin trainer Ric O'Barry, who captured and trained at least one of the dolphins that portrayed television's Flipper, became so convinced that dolphins were stressed, unhappy and even depressed in captivity that he has spent the past 40 years advocating for the end of dolphin shows at theme parks and aquariums and for the release of all captive dolphins back into the wild [source: Palmer].
Put down the bug spray: That spider is not coming to get you, it doesn't want to bite you, and it probably couldn't hurt you even if it did.
Like bats, spiders devour harmful insects and mostly stay out of humans' way. Yet many people fear them, squish them, or scream and shudder at the sight of them. Spiders are not bloodsuckers, and they have no reason to bite anything that's too big for them to eat [source: Crawford].
In fact, arachnologist Rod Crawford of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture writes that he has been bitten only twice over a 30-year career of handling tens of thousands of live ones. In the rare instance that spider bites do occur, it's probably because someone startled the arachnid by reaching into a space it was occupying. Even the so-called aggressive house spider, also known as a hobo spider, isn't particularly aggressive toward humans. It may bite if it fears that its egg sac is in danger but would rather avoid you than seek you out [source: Orkin].
Think you have a spider bite? Unless you actually saw the spider bite you, it's much more likely to be a flea or bedbug bite, a viral or bacterial infection, reaction to poison ivy, or even skin cancer [sources: Main, Palermo].
Just as "pig" is often the go-to insult for someone perceived as messy or greedy, someone prone to lazing around on the couch might be described as a sloth. In fact, the animal gets its English name from the deadly sin of sloth, a profound laziness or "sluggishness of the soul" [source: Suprenant]. But while sloths are by no means fast, with top speeds of just 6 to 8 feet (1.8 to 2.4 meters) per minute, their slow gait conserves energy, and their seemingly inactive bodies are actually working fairly hard [sources: Briggs, Nicholls].
Sloths live in the treetops in tropical climates. Their hairy, slow-moving bodies provide a perfect environment for growing algae and fungus, giving sloths a greenish full-body camouflage. One of the sloth's main predators is the harpy eagle, which has speed and strength and the ability to attack from the air. A sloth has no chance of outrunning an eagle (or a big jungle cat such as a jaguar), so it instead relies on camouflage and complete stillness to make itself nearly invisible.
Contrary to popular belief, sloths sleep only about 9.6 hours each day in the wild [source: Briggs]. As they sit motionless in the trees, their stomachs and intestines slowly and carefully digest the sloth's most recent meal, sometimes taking as long as 50 days to extract every available nutrient from a diet that consists mainly of leaves [sources: Nicholls, World Animal Foundation].
In Western culture, owls are synonymous with wisdom and knowledge. You notice it in childhood stories like "Winnie the Pooh" and college mascots like the Temple Owls. Cartoon owls wearing caps and gowns appear on graduation cards, and owls in reading spectacles are regularly spotted on signs for libraries and bookstores. In Greek and Roman mythology, owls were associated with education, intellect and magic, probably because of their wide eyes, solemn expression and ability to see through darkness [sources: Cornell, Lewis].
But are owls actually wise? As it turns out, not so much. Their nocturnal habits and swift, silent flight make them seem mysterious, and they are certainly well-adapted for hunting small creatures in low light, but when it comes to measurable intelligence, owls have very small brains proportionate to their body size, and they are less trainable than crows, hawks, parrots or pigeons. In fact, most owls can't be trained to do simple tasks [sources: Mascoli, Santillano].
Interestingly, in India, an owl is considered dumb and empty-headed, due to its tendency to sit and stare blankly into space. In fact, the Hindi word for owl, which is oolu, is also used as a gently derogatory term meaning "dolt" or "fool" [sources: Foster, Santillano]. Someone hanging around without doing anything useful might be said to be sitting around "like an owl."
Cows aren't generally the first animal that comes to mind when we think of intelligence. We think of them standing in fields languidly chewing their cuds or bumping shoulder to shoulder with their herd mates as they wait for feeding or milking time. We describe people being "herded like cattle" as they shuffle mindlessly and powerlessly through airport security lines. There's the insult of calling someone a "stupid cow."
But vegetarians and animal rights activists have long argued that cows have more emotions and intelligence than we give them credit for. As it turns out, they are probably right. At least one organization says that cows have been observed to develop friendships with other cows, hold grudges and mourn the loss of their calves to death or separation.
Researchers at the University of Cambridge found that not only were cows capable of learning how to open a gate to get a food reward; they also reacted to their learning accomplishments by displaying increased heart rates and vigorous movement, which one animal researcher called evidence of a "eureka" moment similar to what humans experience when they learn something new [sources: Balcombe, Hagen and Broom].
"Are you a cat person or a dog person?" We've all heard the question at some point. As the stereotype goes, cats are aloof, sneaky and independent, while dogs are social, loyal and energetic. But if you've ever owned cats, you know that their individual personalities can be as different as those of people.
According to the website of cat behavior consultant Pam Johnson-Bennett, cats aren't aloof; they're focused. If they don't respond immediately when you speak to them, it may just be that they are too engrossed in looking for potential prey, like the foot you're about to move underneath your blanket. Cats may show affection by sitting on you or next to you, rubbing against you, bumping their heads into you and licking you.
One 2013 study demonstrated that cats responded to their owners' voices by moving their heads and ears toward the sound, even if the owner was out of the cat's sight [source: Saito and Shinozuka]. The findings suggest that rather than being indifferent to humans, cats do indeed distinguish between their owners and unfamiliar people. Of course, this comes as no surprise to anyone whose cat has ever disappeared under a bed the moment guests arrive, only to come out of hiding and leap into a familiar lap looking for affection as soon as the coast is clear.
Before you accuse us of being completely heartless, we admit that "wildly wrong" may be a stretch for this particular animal stereotype. We've seen the videos of dogs refusing to leave their owner's final resting places, greeting their owners as they return from war and even running into traffic to pull a canine companion to safety. It's possible that some of these videos even made us cry a little. But are all dogs equally deserving of the man's best friend moniker?
In his book "The Truth About Dogs", author Stephen Budiansky suggests, mostly tongue in cheek, that dogs have us hoodwinked, feigning loyalty and devotion in return for prime real estate in front of a cozy fireplace, space in our beds, food from our plates and license to get away with pretty much any quirky or disruptive behavior they can come up with.
In 2013, a group of Hungarian researchers found that dogs responded to robots in the same manner that they responded toward people. In fact, given the choice between a robot that spoke the dog's name in a programmed voice, extended a gloved hand for the dog to sniff and directed the dogs toward hidden food, or a human that offered none of those rewards, the dogs indicated a preference for the robot, spending more time at the robot's side and gazing at the robot's head [source: Lakatos et al.].
Rabbits can be fluffy bundles of laziness or superbly rambunctious. Learn if rabbits really go crazy in March at HowStuffWorks.
Author's Note: 10 Wildly Wrong Animal Stereotypes
I've always been a huge fan of bats and spiders, so I loved finding information that might help others come to appreciate them, too. (Anything that will eat a mosquito is a friend of mine.) And while I wasn't too surprised to learn that these animal stereotypes were false, it was interesting to think about how some of the myths came about in the first place and to see the differences and similarities in the way different cultures perceive the same animal.
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