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Why Does It Shock Us When People Act Like Animals

If you are a delicious wild escargot, one place you absolutely do not want to visit is my box turtle Bruce’s enclosure, where you will never be mistaken for anyone other than who you are….lunch.

Sometimes a movie comes out that I really want to see and yet for some reason I miss seeing it in theaters. When this happens, there is usually (what feels like) a ridiculously long wait before it comes out in rental form.

This was the case with the movie “The Glass Castle,” a true story based on the best-selling book by the same name, written by Jeannette Walls.

I was SO eager to see this film, which seemed to focus in on how being or feeling “different” can become a strength rather than a lifelong weakness.

The film did a very good job addressing this topic. But in the process, it also brought up other surprising topics I didn’t expect to encounter.

My partner and I often talk about how much we can learn from observing nature and observing ourselves in nature and noticing similarities and differences. This applies to observing and interacting with domestic “pet” animals as well as wild nature, and my three non-human companions, one parrot and two turtles, teach me so much in this area.

For instance, from my observations, I have noticed the four of us have a lot in common, from necessary daily bodily functions to fight-or-flight reflexes to food preferences to the occasional bouts of moodiness. There are actually some days when I tend to nearly forget we come from different species.

To me, they are just little people with feathers or shells instead of skin, and we are more alike than different underneath. We are a family made up of four different species rather than only one species and no one makes a big deal out of it.

In the film “The Glass Castle,” it is no secret right from frame one that the Walls family lives a hobo life. They are often homeless, sometimes penniless, frequently hungry and cold. For this reason, there are times when trash cans and even trash heaps look like treasure troves rather than discarded and undesirable refuse.

There is one scene in the movie when the author (and middle child) Jeannette is all grown up, graduated from college, successful in her journalistic profession and on her way to a party in New York City. Suddenly, out of the window of her taxi, she sees her mom and dad rooting through a large trash heap. 

She looks the other way, hoping they haven’t spotted her.

Later, she meets her mom for lunch and her mom tells her they did see her drive by that night without stopping. Her mom tells her not to judge them just because they choose to live differently.

In the memoir the film is based on, the deeper story is revealed: Jeannette is being threatened by a prominent fellow journalist and cartoonist who intends to publish a new cartoon about her parents’ squatter lifestyle.

At some point in all this, Jeannette asks her mom, “What should I tell people when they ask about you?” Her mom replies without a trace of shame or embarrassment, “Tell them the truth.” This advice felt very practical to me, and also more….animal….than human.

And here is the reason I say that.

While watching the movie, I realized that every day, all day, right out in the open, the non-human residents of this planet dig through our leftover garbage heaps, dumpster dive through our trash compactors, recycle, repurpose and reuse all kinds of things our species has discarded.

Yet no one threatens to “out” them in a national publication. No one shames them for taking what they need from what others no longer want. No one runs journalistic exposes, complete with unauthorized zoom lens photography, documenting the depths to which they have fallen.

No one is even interested, even though these beings still see great value in what we have long since lost interest in and mostly can’t even be bothered to dispose of properly.

Non-human beings also do lots of other things that will never make the front page – or any page – of any publication anywhere, ever.

Examples include bathrooming in public, making eggs and babies right out in the open, attacking one another (whether for lunch or dinner or claiming turf or some other reason), screeching/hissing/barking at each other, thieving coveted items that are not theirs, squatting in garages and crawl spaces and underneath vehicles and so much more.

Yet if a homo sapiens – say, you or me – did any of these things out where any other homo sapiens could see us, we would be on the evening news and quite possibly locked up or institutionalized or worse. Our fellow homo sapiens would be so shocked. There were be inquiries into the “aberrant” behavior and a quest to discover “what went wrong” that a civilized, cultured human being would act that way.

But truly, I can’t find anything precisely “wrong” with a homo sapiens acting in any of these ways that would require any special investigation, outside of any actions required to uphold the laws and rules we all ostensibly agree to by congregating together to live in certain areas. Otherwise, underneath all our so-called civility, those basic animal urges are still naturally there in all their fullness and glory.

Underneath our smooth and polished presentations, we, too, are still animals in every practical way that matters. We have all the same basic parts, the same basic needs, the same basic urges, the same basic instincts.

It is just that, for us, there are all these rules and taboos that prevent us from acting on our own animal instincts and urges in the same ways that are so freely expressed by the other non-human animals all around us.

And don’t get me wrong, I’m glad there are social mores, rules, punishments, whatever, that make it less desirable for one homo sapiens to kill or maim or prey upon or steal from another homo sapiens, especially from one that may be less strong or savvy (such as myself) than the others.

I am just amazed at the shock expressed when one of our own acts out of our shared animal instincts.

Like we see in the movie “The Glass Castle,” we can change our exterior appearances all we like and even attempt to change all the rules we live by so our lives less openly resemble the non-human animals living all around us, but on the inside, we are still who we are and always have been – wild human animals to our core.

Today’s Takeaway: Do you ever observe your pets or the wild animals living near to you and see yourself in them? Do you wonder how we grew so far apart in how we live today? Do you ever wonder what life would be like if there weren’t taboos or rules in place prohibiting people from doing the things animals do all day, every day, right out in plain sight? 

Why Does It Shock Us When People Act Like Animals

Shannon Cutts

Parrot, tortoise & box turtle mama. Writer. Author. Mentor. Champion of all people (and things) recovered and recovering.

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APA Reference
Cutts, S. (2017). Why Does It Shock Us When People Act Like Animals. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 18 Nov 2017
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