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Stereotypes of animals

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Not to be confused with Stereotypy (non-human)

When anthropomorphising an animal there are stereotypical traits which commonly tend to be associated with particular species. Often these are simply exaggerations of real aspects or behaviours of the creature in question, while other times the stereotype is taken from mythology and replaces any observation-based judgment of that animal's behavior. Some are popularised or solidified by a single particularly notable appearance in media. For example, Disney's 1942 film Bambi portrays the titular deer as an innocent, fragile animal.[1] In any case, once they have entered the culture as widely-recognized stereotypes of animals, they tend to be used both in conversation and media as a kind of shorthand for expressing particular qualities.

While some authors make use of these animal stereotypes "as is", others undermine reader expectations by reversing them, developing the animal character in contrasting ways to foil expectations or create amusement, like a fastidious pig or cowardly lion).

Some modern stereotypes of animals have a long tradition dating back to Aesop's Fables, which draw upon sources that include Ancient Egyptian animal tales. Aesop's stereotypes were so deeply ingrained by the time of Apollonius of Tyana that they were accepted as representative of the various types of animals' "true" natures:

And there is another charm about him, namely, that he puts animals in a pleasing light and makes them interesting to mankind. For after being brought up from childhood with these stories, and after being as it were nursed by them from babyhood, we acquire certain opinions of the several animals and think of some of them as royal animals, of others as silly, of others as witty, and others as innocent.



Many animal stereotypes reflect anthropomorphic notions unrelated to animals' true behaviors. Thus, while a shark feeds as nature intends, in folklore the shark tends to be stereotyped as "cruel", implying a conscious choice to inflict pain. Some stereotypes are based on mistaken or grossly oversimplified impressions; spotted hyenas, for example, commonly portrayed as cowardly scavengers, are efficient pack hunters with complex social structures.

Despite these considerations, the use of animal stereotypes is generally much less problematic than it is for human stereotypes.

Common Western animal stereotypes




  • The bloodthirsty or evil bat
    • Among the 1,000 species of bats, only three feed on blood. This stereotypical image is based on vampire stories.
  • The expression "as blind as a bat" is common but in reality bats are not blind. Microbats have poor visual acuity while some megabats have very good vision.
  • Another stereotype associated with bats is that the animal will fly into one's hair. This is an urban legend. Bats can navigate very well in the dark thanks to echolocation.[3]





  • The aggressive bull who attacks everyone and everything with the color red
    • This stereotype can be found in many comic strips and cartoons and is based on bullfighting where the bullfighter taunts the bull by waving a small red cape (muleta). This has led to the urban legend that bulls will attack anything in the color red. In reality bulls attack the waving cape instead of the color. The reason those capes have the color red is its association with blood and the tradition itself.
    • In popular culture all bulls used for bull fighting will be announced as "El Toro", which is simply Spanish for "the bull".
  • The vicious bull
    • Bulls have been used in many European coats of arms and weapon shields
    • In Greek mythology the Minotaur was a monster who was a man with a bull's head.
  • The powerful bull:
  • The dumb bull, cow or calf
    • Since cattle seem to do nothing more than stand in grassy fields, obstruct traffic and stare at everything passing by, people have portrayed them as characters who are not very bright.
    • In many languages being called "a stupid cow" or "dumb calf" is an insult. Being "treated as cattle" or expressing a "herd mentality" are also pejorative expressions.
    • The urban legend of cow tipping is also based on this conception.
  • The mighty bull and holy cow
  • Many ancient cultures have worshipped cattle as divine creatures. In Hinduism the holy cow is still in effect.
  • Cows are also brought into association with dairy products, since their milk is used to produce these items. For this reason they are popular as advertising mascots. Examples are The Laughing Cow, Elsie the Cow, Milka cow



  • The stubborn, stupid, lazy or slow ass
    • Examples: Nick Bottom, Donkey, stupid and naughty children are transformed into donkeys in Pinocchio,...
    • The English expression "you are making an ass out of yourself" refers to dumb behaviour.
    • In previous centuries schools often forced naughty or "dumb" pupils to sit in a classroom corner while wearing a donkey-eared dunce cap.
    • In many cultures parading on donkey is used as a humiliating punishment.
    • The Dutch word for mnemonic is "ezelsbruggetje", literally "donkey bridge".
    • In Dutch, the word "ezel" is also used as an insult, denoting dumb or stubborn people.


  • The unforgetting elephant
    • From the folk-saying "An elephant never forgets" and the expression "an elephant memory" (in some languages, such as Dutch, they speak of a "horse memory")
  • The mice-fearing elephant
    • Confirmed by the MythBusters in their 2007 episode "Shooting Fish in a Barrel".
  • The strict and imposing elephant who doesn't tolerate nonsense.
  • The noble elephant
  • The downtrodden or mistreated young elephant
  • Drunks are often depicted as if they see pink elephants or pink rabbits while being intoxicated.
  • In a South-East Asian setting elephants will often be transporting people of the higher classes or tiger hunters on their back.
  • In popular culture elephants are usually seen eating peanuts.
  • In cartoons and comic strips elephants are able to play the trumpet with their trunk.
  • Elephants are often named "Hannibal", in reference to the Carthaginian general Hannibal who crossed the Alps with elephants.






Kangaroos and wallabies



  • The suicidal lemming
    • Lemmings tend to migrate in large numbers, which can include jumping off cliffs into the water and swimming great distances to the point of exhaustion and even death. However, in these cases it's pure accidental and not intentionally trying to kill itself. Lemmings don't even deliberately throw themselves off cliffs. This stereotype was influenced by a Disney documentary, White Wilderness (1958) where the animals were chased off a cliff by the documentary makers, purely for some sensational images.





  • The slow-witted moose
    • The cartoon characters Bullwinkle J. Moose and Lumpy are portrayed as slow-witted.
    • Sam Winchester from Supernatural is often compared to a moose because of his height and how the Winchesters are great at stating obvious things. i.e. "It was night, and now it's day" and "Today is Tuesday, but yesterday was Tuesday, too".




  • The obnoxious, filthy, greedy and/or dirty pig
    • All these aspects are due to the natural pig lifestyle (when raised on a farm rather than a feedlot)—"greedy" from the way they devour any food put in front of them, "filthy" from the fact that a pig-sty is generally a soup of mud and feces which the pigs don't seem to mind at all (this also gives rise to the saying "As happy as a pig"). The stereotype may also derive in part from Judeo-Islamic cultures, whose concepts of kosher/halal teach that pigs are "unclean" for various reasons.
    • "Pig" is a pejorative nickname for a filthy or ugly person in many languages. It also is a derogatory word for the police in English slang, which is why all policemen in Fritz the Cat are pigs, and why Chief Wiggum of The Simpsons resembles a pig.
    • A piggybank also contributes to pigs' association with greed.
    • Examples: Napoleon and other pigs in Animal Farm.
  • Pigs are also portrayed as straight men or sidekicks.
  • The wise pig
    • Appears in Korean culture stories

Polar bears

Rabbits and hares







  • The smelly skunk
    • Chuck Jones' Pepé Le Pew is one of the best-known animated skunks and propagates the idea that the animals emit their scent continuously. Human characters often run in panic from the mere sight or smell of a skunk.


  • The lazy sloth
    • Sloth, one of the seven deadly sins, meaning spiritual apathy.
    • Sid the prehistoric sloth in the Ice Age films is depicted as lively and fast-talking, in contrast to the stereotype.

Squirrels and chipmunks

Tasmanian devils






Birds are often portrayed as stupid. The English language has the expression "birdbrain", meaning not very bright. Another expression, "eat like a bird", derives from the notion that birds have small appetites. Some birds have an association with beauty. In British English "bird" can mean "pretty, attractive girl". The fact that songbirds whistle has also contributed to an association with beauty.


Game fowl

  • The skittish and shy quail who manages to evade hunters
    • Examples: Various cartoons from Warner Brothers and Disney
  • The proud peacock
    • From the saying: "as proud as a peacock".
    • Peacocks are often used as a symbol of vanity and pride.
  • The nervous pheasant
    • Pheasants are often depicted as being worried about being shot at. Examples include the pheasants from Bambi and Mr and Mrs Pheasant in The Animals of Farthing Wood


Crows and ravens

  • The ominous raven or crow
    • In ancient folklore ravens and crows were often seen as foretellers of death and destruction, as portrayed in Edgar Allan Poe's poem "The Raven" Also, in Celtic and Irish myths, goddesses of war often appeared in the form of a raven or crow. The stereotype of ravens portraying death could stem from the fact that they are often seen feasting on the gore of dead soldiers after battle.
    • Crows and ravens are also often depicted as villains; examples include Diablo, Maleficent's pet raven in Disney's Sleeping Beauty, and corvids such as General Ironbeak and his horde in the Redwall series
  • The Afro-American crow
    • In the 19th and early 20th century white Americans often compared black people with crows, due to the black colour of the bird. Crows in these stereotypical depictions speak in jive.
    • Examples: Jim Crow, the crows in Dumbo, the comic strip and animated version of Fritz the Cat



  • The child-stealing eagle
    • Eagles are often depicted in stories as creatures who like to attack humans and especially children and then pick them up with their claws to feed them to their own children. This is a myth, since eagles can only lift up to 4 pounds and are more likely to attack other, smaller animals.[5]
    • In contrast, the giant golden eagle Marahute in Disney's The Rescuers Down Under is a loyal, protective friend of a boy named Cody after he saves her from a poacher
  • The proud, noble eagle


  • The evil falcon
    • Falcons, like eagles, are predatory birds. They are used to kill pigeons for bird control and were used to intercept homing pigeons in both World Wars.
    • Examples: Shan Yu's falcon in Mulan, Falcon from Stuart Little 2, the German falcons from Valiant.


  • Compared to ducks and swans geese are usually depicted more negatively. They are often portrayed as being stupid, arrogant, naïve, gullible and/or gossipy.
  • Since geese travel to the South during the winter they are often depicted as travelers.




  • The nervous and easily frightened ostrich
    • Ostriches are often portrayed as being nervous and are widely thought to bury their heads in the sand at the first sign of danger. In reality this is not true; the ostrich is more likely to respond by fleeing, or, failing in that, delivering powerful kicks, easily capable of killing a man or a lion.[6]


  • The wise owl
  • Although owls are often associated with wisdom and intelligence, this is not universal. During the Middle Ages owls were seen as stupid and evil helpers of witches. In many paintings of Hieronymus Bosch the bird is seen as a symbol of stupidity and/or evil. The Dutch profanity word "uilskuiken" ("owl chick") is used to insult a stupid person; the Dutch saying "Wat baten kaars en bril als de uil niet zien wil?" ("What use are a candle and glasses if the owl refuses to see?") reminds people of this opposite view of owls. In Asian culture owls are traditionally seen as dumb instead of wise. Portrayal of owls as evil can also be seen in films such as Rock-a-Doodle.
The owl is often depicted as wise.

Parrots and cockatoos

  • The talkative, annoying, and/or smartypants parrot/cockatoo (no distinction)
    • Example Paulie, Flip in Jommeke, Nigel from Rio (film), Iago in the Disney film Aladdin and Preston from Garfield 2
    • Parrots are also often portrayed as if they can actually converse with people, whereas real parrots can only mimic certain sounds.


Pigeons and doves

  • The peaceful dove
    • The peace dove is a universal symbol of pacifism and peace.
    • In Biblical stories the dove is often used as a sign of goodwill or a peaceful messenger. Today doves are often released from cages into the open air to inaugurate a special event.



  • The baby-delivering stork
    • In western folklore, parents have told their children for centuries that babies are delivered by a stork. Examples can be found in the film Dumbo and the short Lambert the Sheepish Lion.


Vultures and buzzards


Reptiles and amphibians

Alligators and crocodiles

  • The weeping and hypocritical crocodile
    • Many political cartoons, legends and stories feature crocodiles who claim to be sad about someone else's grief and then cry fake tears as a result. This stereotype is based on the fact that in real life crocodiles can often be observed with teary eyes while they consume their dead prey. The reason for this behaviour lies is that crocodiles are unable to chew and thus forced to rip their food into chunks and swallow them whole. Since the glands that keep their eyes moist are right near their throats this eating habit actually forces them to produce tears. This observation lead humans to believe that crocodiles are crying about the death of the animal they hypocritically just killed themselves and created the expression "crying crocodile tears", which means that one shows emotions without really meaning it.[8]
  • The villainous crocodile/alligator

Dinosaurs and pterosaurs

Frogs and toads



Turtles and tortoises

Fish and sea mammals






  • The gluttonous piranha
    • These fish are often portrayed as if they guzzle up anything thrown into the water they swim in. Though piranhas are notorious for this behaviour recent studies have proven that they don't always attack creatures in the water straightaway.
    • Examples: Piranha (1978 film), the piranhas in You Only Live Twice, ...



  • The man-eating whale
    • Due to their enormous size, people have feared that whales will devour any creature. In reality, most whales live off plankton and are unable to swallow bigger creatures. (This definition of "whale", however, excludes the toothed whale family, many of whose members in English are not thought of as whales.)
    • Examples: Monstro in Pinocchio, Jonah and the Whale, Moby-Dick
  • The majestic, graceful, gentle whale



  • The diligent ant
    • This stems mainly from a fable, The Ant and the Grasshopper, in which the ant works hard to prepare for the winter while the grasshopper wastes the summer and fall having fun, only to have to beg food from the ant or starve.
  • The militant ant
    • Ants, like many animals that form colonies or hives, are known for working together like an army. Some popular culture have the ants portray as military soldiers. Example: the ants from Antz
  • The thieving/bothersome ant.


Crickets and grasshoppers

  • Crickets and grasshoppers look very similar and because of this they are often confused with each other.
  • The violin playing cricket/grasshopper
    • Male crickets are known for the chirping sound they make. In some cultures this sound is seen as a sign of good luck, while in other cultures it is associated with bad luck. Some cartoons depict crickets as violinists because the movements they make to produce their chirping sound resemble someone playing a violin.
    • Examples: The grasshopper in the Disney cartoon The Grasshopper and the Ants and in Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach.
  • The lazy/carefree grasshopper
    • This stems mainly from a fable, The Ant and the Grasshopper, in which the ant works hard to prepare for the winter while the grasshopper wastes the summer and fall having fun, only to have to beg for food from the ant or starve. For this reason, grasshoppers are also sometimes characterized as social parasites (as in the Pixar movie A Bug's Life).
    • An exception is the Old-Green-Grasshopper in Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach, who is portrayed as a well-mannered gentleman and musician. Similarly, the Humbug from The Phantom Tollbooth.





  • The destructive termite
    • Because of the termite's reputation of eating wood and wrecking homes and buildings, which is greatly exaggerated in cartoons


  • The wanton and vicious wasp
    • Wasps are often portrayed as deliberate stingers of humans.

Common East Asian animal stereotypes

Animal stereotypes in East Asian cultures (China, Japan, Korea, etc.) include:

  • The loyal/savage dog
    • While domesticated dogs were welcomed, wild dogs were dangerous to both humans and their cattle.
  • The royal elephant
    • Most notable in Thailand and India, elephants are symbols of royalty.
  • The proud horse
  • The thieving mouse
    • As a mouse was a common pest, they were likened to thieves. However, in Japanese tradition, a mouse also guarantees a good harvest.
  • The comical or lecherous octopus
  • The stupid/rich pig
  • The lucky/acquisitive cat
    • Cats are said to bring luck to business ventures. Many Japanese video games feature anthropomorphic cats ("neko") in mercantile roles (e.g. Square's Secret of Mana) as well.
  • The cute kitten
    • Catgirls occupy a niche in Japanese otaku culture, most often as females dressed to some degree as a humanoid with cat elements like cat ears and a tail.
  • The devoted/tricky rabbit
    • The former is from a Buddhist story where a rabbit offered itself as a gift to Buddha by leaping into a fire. In Kojiki, a white rabbit appears as a trickster. This is also due to the mythology of the rabbit in the moon.
    • In a Korean folktale, a wise rabbit rescues a man from a greedy, ungrateful tiger.
  • The friendly snake[citation needed]
  • The proud tiger
  • The cruel tiger
    • The folktales about man-devouring tigers appear frequently in Korea. At times tigers can be gullible or loyal.
  • The wise and old turtle/tortoise
  • The protecting wolf
    • The wolf protected Japanese farmers crops from raiders.
  • The grateful/loyal magpie
    • In Korea, a magpie chirping near one's house indicates that long-anticipated guests are finally coming.
    • In one Korean folktale, a magpie sacrifices herself to save the man who rescued her chicks from a serpent.
  • In Japanese folklore, the kitsune and fox represent the trickster, similar to the jackal in Africa, or coyote and fox in North America.
  • In Japanese folklore, the tanuki and raccoon dog, are related, represents the trickster.
  • The buddies of friendly fish
  • The fabulous/rich frog and toad
  • The clever otter
  • The thinkful[definition?] seal
  • The joyful songbird
  • The cute and cruel bear
  • The brave and proud panda
  • The power and proud lion

Indian animal stereotypes

India has a rich tradition of animal stories and beast fables, including one of the world's oldest collections of stories, the Panchatantra and its later derivatives such as the Hitopadesha. Throughout these fables, the talking animals behave as humans (unlike the Aesop model, in which animals behave as animals), and are used to invoke characters with stereotypical personalities. There is also a distinction between wild and domesticated animals. Some common stereotypes include:

  • Lion: king of the forest; demonstrates all royal strengths and weaknesses. Brave, noble and proud but can be haughty and foolish. Has natural rivalry with the elephant.[9]
  • Jackal: greedy and cunning (akin to the fox in European tradition); sometimes punished but often gets away. Is often a manipulative minister to the king.[10]
  • Hare: small and vulnerable but compensates by being crafty, outwitting stronger rivals.[10]
  • Elephant (wild or domestic): noble, proud, strong; enemy of the lion but like the lion can be naive and, when in rut, wild and unpredictable.[11]
  • Cat (domestic or wild): cunning and hypocritical, with a calm appearance hiding murderous intentions.[12]
  • Tiger: Symbol of might and courage; celebrated as national animal of India.[13]
  • Dog: considered unclean and impure, reviled— not a pet but a pest; considered to lack self-respect.[11]
  • Mongoose: loyal and useful pet, best known for its natural enmity toward snakes. See The Brahmin and the Mongoose.[14]


  1. ^ Eaton, Marcia. "Fact and Fiction in Aes App of Nature". Accessed 17 September 2006.
  2. ^ Philostratus, Flavius (c.210 CE). The Life of Apollonius of Tyan, 5.14. Translated by F.C. Conybeare. the Loeb Classical Library (1912)
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^ (
  6. ^ Straight Dope. 26 May 1999. "Do ostriches really bury their heads in the sand?". Accessed 15 September 2006.
  7. ^ Stebbins, Elinor. 1998. "Pallas Athena, Goddess of Wisdom". Accessed 17 September 2006.
  8. ^
  9. ^ Olivelle p. 29, Törzsök p. 41.
  10. ^ a b Törzsök p. 40, Olivelle p. 29
  11. ^ a b Törzsök p. 39, Olivelle p. 28
  12. ^ Törzsök p. 37, Olivelle p. 27
  13. ^ "National Animal -National Symbols - Know India: National Portal of India". National Portal of India. Retrieved 2012-03-23.
  14. ^ Törzsök p. 42, Olivelle p. 30