When it comes to fiction, an animal is never just animal. Animals always symbolize things — and they usually symbolize the same thing over and over. For example, a crow isn't just a common bird who happens to be nearby, it's a dark portent of bad things to come. Here are the most overused animal stereotypes in pop culture.
As seen in: Discworld; Macbeth; the Smurfs; The Sandman; All Dogs Go to Heaven 2; Pet Semetary; Watership Down; Harry Potter; X-Files "Teso Dos Bichos"
Cats, man. Ever since they wandered out of the desert and started hunting mice, we've assumed there must be something else going on with them. The Egyptians thought they were messengers from the gods. Later, they were attached to witches, either as their familiars or as the preferred form of shapeshifting witches. Maybe it's the way their pupils change sizes. Or the way they seem to play with their food. The freaky way they move and hunt in the night. The way they like to drop dead things in front of us. The tendency to act all independent and not follow us around acting all worshipful and stuff. Their unpleasant hissing and yowling.
Whatever it is, owning a pet cat is shorthand for "evil dude." And it's not just the sleek black cats, famed for their ability to bring bad luck, that get this treatment. The iconic bad guy Ernst Blofeld has a fluffy white cat which he pets, menacingly. In Watership Down, Animal Farm, and many other works featuring talking animals, they're the evil hunters. Tiny, cute things are natural protagonists. So the already-discriminated-against cats are natural enemies. In All Dogs Go to Heaven 2, a cat is literally Satan.
Even people who like cats have are prone to indulging this trope. Check out these quotes:
All cats can see futures, and see echoes of the past. We can watch the passage of creatures from the infinity of now, from all the worlds like ours, only fractionally different. And we follow them with our eyes, ghost things, and the humans see nothing.
―Neil Gaiman, Sandman #18: "A Dream of a Thousand Cats"
For the cat is cryptic, and close to strange things which men cannot see. He is the soul of antique Aegyptus, and bearer of tales from forgotten cities in Meroe and Ophir. He is the kin of the jungle's lords, and heir to the secrets of hoary and sinister Africa. The Sphinx is his cousin, and he speaks her language; but he is more ancient than the Sphinx, and remembers that which she hath forgotten
― H. P. Lovecraft, "The Cats of Ulthar"
If cats looked like frogs we'd realize what nasty, cruel little bastards they are. Style. That's what people remember.
― Terry Pratchett, Lords and Ladies
It doesn't matter that, in the U.S. alone, there are 86.4 million pet cats. Or that 39% of U.S. households have pets cats, and that 52% of those households have more than one. They're evil. Or the U.S. has a massive, unaddressed, evil witch problem.
As Seen In: Garfield; Up; Watership Down; Animal Farm; The Unadulterated Cat; So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish; Red Dwarf; Rin Tin Tin; The Dresden Files; Lassie; Harry Potter; Wizard of Oz; Tintin; Superman; Batman; The Little Mermaid; Mad Max; TRON: Legacy; Person of Interest.
If cats are independent, and therefore worrisome, dogs are loyal and everyone's best friend. A good dog is an obedient dog, and that's easy to treat as loyalty. It's also easy to see an animal that does what it's told as stupid and incapable of independent thought.
Rin Tin Tin and Lassie are the prototypical hero dogs, who save humans in danger. Then there's Watership Down and Animal Farm, where dogs are antagonists, but still stupid. Harry Dresden's Mouse is a giant, loyal dog who also saves his life. So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish has Know-Nothing Bozo the Non-wonder Dog, who is incapable of eating any food that's not covered in engine oil.
We've also got dogs who look scary, but are undercut by these traits. Hagrid's Fang from Harry Potter springs to mind.
And while evil masterminds pet a cat, heroes can be designated by their dog sidekick. See Dorothy's Toto, Tintin's Snowy, Superman's Krypto, Ace the Bat-Hound, Prince Eric's (from The Little Mermaid) dog, Mad Max's, TRON: Legacy's Sam's. Even the ultra-paranoid Person of Interest has a loyal dog companion.
As Seen In: The Chronicles of Narnia; Middle Earth's Wargs; Wheel of Time; A Song of Ice and Fire; White Fang; The Call of the Wild; The Belgariad; Discworld, The Immortals by Tamora Pierce
Image by Martin Mecnarowski
This is the flipside of the dog one. Wolves stand as symbols of the fierce, untamed wild. We see our happy, loyal dogs and like to imagine they're really wolves. That any moment, they'll shake off domestication and be noble animals once again. That's the central theme of Jack London's White Fang. And the fear that drives the werewolf myth.
And we also love the totally untrue idea of the pack system. That, even in the wild, the strongest, smartest wolf is in charge.
As Seen In: The Great Mouse Detective; Chicken Run; The Princess Bride; Willard; Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade; 1984; Redwall; Watership Down
You can see how this happened. Rats eat our food, sneak into our houses, and carry diseases. And therefore, they must be dirty, gross, criminals. The villain in The Great Mouse Detective, who is quite gleefully evil, cannot stand to be accused of being a rat. Doing so will get you fed to his cat (Yes, an evil rat with an evil pet cat. This one hits a bunch of these stereotypes in one go). The rats in Redwall are almost always criminals. And they're vicious attackers in Watership Down.
As Seen In: King Kong (2005); Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom; Batman; most vampire stories.
Like rats, we just don't like the look of bats. A cave or castle with a swarm of bats issuing from it is shorthand for "Oh god, don't go inside." And it doesn't help that they actually do carry diseases. We also really don't like the dark, so the facts that bats a) are active in the dark, when we're vulnerable and b) live in caves, which are creepy add to our mistrust.
Of course, they won't fly into hair. The vast majority of bat species don't drink blood. They're not blind.
But who cares! Bram Stoker read a newspaper article about vampire bats, wrote this:
"I was on the Pampas and had a mare … One of those big bats that they call 'vampires' had got at her during the night and … there wasn't enough blood in her to let her stand up."
and now here we are. Bats are scary and billionaire orphan vigilantes have a great new costume idea.
As Seen In: The Mummy Trilogy; Middle Earth; Animorphs; The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul; Harry Potter
Being a really impressive hunter can either be a really good thing or a bad one, in terms of human stereotyping. Cats freak us right out. So do snakes. Eagles though, with their penetrating gazes and massive wings are symbols of might and power. Ask the Romans. Or the American founding fathers (minus Benjamin Franklin). Or the Romulans, who apparently have some similar massive bird of prey, too, judging by their symbol.
We've got a former RAF pilot transformed into one in Douglas Adams' Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul. Ravenclaw's symbol in Harry Potter. And, of course, the giant rescuing eagles of plot convenience in Middle Earth.
As Seen In: Batman; the Corpse Bride; Sherlock Holmes (2009); The Matrix: Reloaded; Middle Earth; A Song of Ice and Fire; The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe
Continuing with the bird theme, there are the corvids. It's actually completely true that the corvid family of birds are very smart. But ravens and crows are also black (creepy!) and have a grating call and a cartoonish speaking voice. They're also carrion eaters, which is an unpleasant sight for us.
The carrion thing is probably explains why gathering crows always herald the coming of danger in fiction. You've got them in things as varied as Hitchcock's The Birds to The Matrix: Reloaded.
Just mentioning ravens instantly brings Edgar Allen Poe's insistent messenger to mind. Star Trek also had tendency to use Ravens to bring ultimately bad news. Data saw a Raven leading him to Dr. Soong, and Seven of Nine has visions of one when she revisits being assimilated. Then there's Game of Thrones, where Ravens are just generally used to carry messages, and everybody says, "Dark wings, dark words."
As Seen In: Winnie the Pooh; The Sword in the Stone; The Secret of NIMH; The Silver Chair; The Once and Future King; Bambi, Guardians of Ga'Hoole
Poor corvids. As mentioned above, they're the smartest birds out there. And yet, humans have consistently given owls that title. There's a weird chicken-and-egg problem with this one: Do we think of them as intelligent because they were once linked to Athena, goddess of wisdom, or were they linked to her because we always assume they're wise?
Is it the eyes? The beak? The fact that we can so easily picture them in glasses? Because when Rabbit tells Owl, in The House at Pooh Corner, "You and I have brains. The others have fluff," it just seems right.
As Seen In: Harry Potter; The Jungle Book; Marvelverse; Aladdin; Anaconda; Kill Bill; Indiana Jones; Conan the Barbarian; Redwall; The Book of Night With Moon; X-Files
Some evil doers don't have cats. Too fluffy. Instead, they're going to go with a snakes. They're scaly, with fangs, slit pupils, and forked tongues. They have no legs! They move unnaturally across the ground. They unhinge their jaw and swallow animals whole. (Okay, the jaw thing isn't strictly true, but that's what we imagine.) Plus, they've got all that baggage from the Old Testament, making them not just look creepy, but prone soul-destroying tricks.
That's why we'd know, even with no other information but that their symbol is a snake, that Slytherins are bad news in Harry Potter. Or that a group called the "Serpent Society" in comics isn't just a meeting of snake enthusiasts. Seriously, the snake motif is so prevalent in Marvel comics, that all the snake-themed villains got together to go after Captain America.
As Seen In:Fantasia, Animaniacs, Madagascar
Look at them! Hahaha, they're dancing! How funny!
Yeah, that's pretty egregious stereotyping we've got going on with the hippopotamus. Logically, they've got to be pretty hardcore. They share a home with lions and crocodiles and are still around. That can't just be because they make them laugh.
As Seen In: Aquaman; Ghost Rider; Seaquest DSV; Flipper; Jaws 3D; a ton of books with "Dolphin" in the title
This just has to be because they're cute and we've gotten them to do fun tricks. And, yes, they have occasionally rescued humans. But, wow, dolphins in the wild can be pretty awful. They kidnap, rape, and murder. Oh, and awesome, they never sleep.
Let's just go ahead and blame Flipper for this perception, while we're at it. What Lassie did for dogs, Flipper did for dolphins.
We've also really latched onto the idea of dolphins as heroic fighters of evil sharks. A Ghost Rider story had the titular character rescued from a shark by a dolphin. As did the cinematic masterpiece Jaws 3D.
Speaking of sharks. . .
As Seen In: Jaws; Batman; Despicable Me; Austin Powers; Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea; the Syfy original movies
You're a villain seeking an easy way to dispose of your enemies. What's to obvious answer to this problem? A pool filled with sharks of course! Everyone knows you can toss anything to a shark and have nothing left after. This one's pretty understandable: It's a giant sea creature with black eyes and never-ending rows of teeth. They creepily announce their presence via a fin sticking out of the water.
There are any number of people who fear the ocean based on Jaws. Syfy has done an excellent job capitalizing of on this fear in their original movies. Beyond this summer's Sharknado, there's been Dinoshark, Sharktopus, Malibu Shark Attack, Shark Swarm, Swamp Shark, Hammerhead: Shark Frenzy, and, of course, Jersey Shore Shark Attack.
They should have borrowed some Bat-Shark Repellent Spray.
Just remember that we kill way more sharks than they kill us.