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Animal Motifs
aka: Animal Motif

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Who would win in a fight between a blue mongoose and a red snake?
"Ah, the Animal Kingdom offers many useful ideas!"
Dr. Otto Octavius, The Spectacular Spider-Man, "The Invisible Hand"

Humans have always been fascinated by animals. Love them or hate them, they usually provoke a strong reaction in people, from the Jerkass who turns to mush when confronted by a playful puppy to the tough guy who freaks out when he encounters something slithery. Most mythologies feature animals in starring roles; some belief systems feature animals as guides, oracles, or totems representing certain qualities or certain people. So of course animals are going to turn up as symbols in popular media.

This animal isn't around to be petted or kicked, or to assist in taking over the world... well, it might be, but only as a side job. The real purpose of these animals is that of most motifs: they're there to underline a theme, or make a statement about a certain character. They might not even be physically present at all. The "animal" might be the name of a football team, a charm on a bracelet, or an ornament on the mantelpiece.

Animals are used to depict characters more often than they describe themes. Even in the real world, describing a person by comparing them to an animal is a good way to convey your opinion of them: phrases such as "lion-hearted", "eagle-eyed", or "doity rat" are popular to the point of cliché. Therefore, many Animal Motifs are also Characterization Tropes. The wimp who spends his time watching the tigers at the zoo will most likely be stronger than you think. As for the girl doodling big black spiders with suspicious red hourglasses on their underbellies... think twice before accepting her invitation to "coffee".

Animals, like flowers, are a motif that tends to be gendered. Men are usually compared to animals that are clearly predatory: wolves, lions, and bears, for example. Women generally get the cute and fluffy animals as motifs, such as bunnies. However, women have historically had a strong association with the cat which, while cuddly and furry, is also a predator. Cats are therefore a common motif for female characters, but one aspect of the feline mystique will most likely be emphasized over the others — the woman will either be a predator, a seductress, or a sweet little kitten. (Lionesses are especially popular for Action Girls: they look very different from male lions, and most people know it's lionesses who do the hunting, so a lioness motif conveniently emphasizes both femininity and ferocity.) Women are also frequently associated with foxes, also a predatory animal, although it is the fox's attractive nature or reputation as a trickster that is being invoked.

Some animals can be used as a motif for either sex but the sex of that character can affect the image of the invoked animal: For example, horses are usually associated with women or little girls as a reflection of their innocent and supportive side. For men and the elderly, the horse is a symbol of their virility, work ethic, and determination. Bears are another example: If they are a man, then they either physically resemble a bear, or they are as strong and brutal as one. If the motif is given to a woman: then they are characterized as sweet and innocent until someone harms or upsets their children whereupon they will bring hell on Earth to protect them.

The important thing is that motif should correlate with the character and be displayed appropriately; for example, a shark motif would indicate the character is either; a villain, a greedy moneylender, or a combative, sociopathic antihero. Therefore, a shark motif wouldn't apply to an altruistic, cheerful paragon who favors clemency over brutality. note  The motif must make sense to the character and allow the audience to understand the story you want to tell, if you use the wrong motif for the character then the audience won't know who to root for in the story.

In the world of fiction, someone who doesn't like animals at all is either a nasty piece of work or obsessively clean and germ-phobic. "Animal hater" is the word for them and so to dilute the "hard-heartedness" of this character, expect to see one particular animal that they just can't resist.note 

Usually overlaps with Animal Stereotypes and National Animal Stereotypes. Wildlife Commentary Spoof is this trope Lampshaded and Played for Laughs.


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  • In North America: Portrait of a Continent, national and state animals appear readily in their appropriate locations, totaling well over 400. Just a handful of examples include a polar bear near Churchill, Manitoba (and several other places in the Arctic tundra), a lobster off the coast of Maine, sled-dogs headed for Nome, a clay-coloured thrush in Costa Rica, a white raven in Haida Gwaii, a bighorn sheep (among several other creatures) in Nevada...
  • The Persistence of Memory: Ants are gnawing away at the leftmost, orange watch while a fly sits on another, symbolizing rot and decay of memory.
  • The Weimaraner is the trademark of William Wegman's works.

    Asian Animation 
  • In Guardian Fairy Michel, the Black Hammers' robots are all shaped like animals, such as a gorilla, a frog, a kangaroo, and a dog.
  • Happy Heroes: It's not touched upon much, but based on part of his hood forming a beak-like shape and him owning a pet owl, Huo Haha seems to be associated with owls.
  • White Snake (2019): The General and his forces are associated with cranes, he even makes a giant magical crane made of paper during the Final Battle.

    Comic Strips 
  • Played for Laughs in this strip by Quino.
  • Besides having a tiger for a best friend, Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes frequently visualizes himself as animals. His favorites are dinosaurs, with him usually as an Allosaurus or a Tyrannosaurus rex, and those around him as herbivores.

    Game Books 
  • Lone Wolf: Lone Wolf has a wolf motif, unsurprisingly.

  • Ravages of Time leans on the same Shu = Dragon and Wu = Tiger motifs that they usually get in popular lore, while Sima Yi is the titular phoenix in the series' Chinese title[[note]]Fiery Phoenix Scorches the Plains, the rest being the translated/reordered name of Liaoyuan Huo, although at least twice the infamous "wolf neck" comes into play.
  • School Shock has Super Soldier Cyborgs named Vanguards. They are themed on bees, praying mantises, ants, moths and spiders.

  • In the Cool Kids Table game Small Magic, the royal family is connected to birds. They tend to listen to them and those assisting the family.
  • The main cast of The Adventure Zone: Balance all have animal associations, laid out explicitly with their disguises in Petals to the Metal and elaborated later on.
    • Magnus is associated with bears; it's later revealed that a bear taught him the meaning of bravery. He's also associated with dogs, as he repeatedly asks for a dog as a pet, his first heroic act was rescuing a dog from bullies, and after the world is saved he opens a dog training school.
    • Merle is associated with owls; later, when he loses an eye, he gets an eyepatch with an owl on it.
    • Taako is associated with mongooses; it's later revealed that a family of mongooses taught him how to speak "animal".
  • Brian Davis of True Geordie has a liking towards to lions. He has a massive lion tattoo on his upper right bicep and there is a lion poster in his studio. In the interview with Logan Paul, there is a lion figure in the background. He also wore a t-shirt of a lion.

  • 1960s Portuguese soccer player Eusebio was also known as "The Black Panther" because of his speed, his powerful strike, and the fact that he was black.
    • Soviet goalkeeper Lev Yashin was "The Black Spider" for its impressive saves and an all-black uniform.
  • Quite a few national soccer teams have animals on the logo (France has a rooster, England has three lions), or as a nickname (Brazil are the "Little Canary team", Nigeria the "Super Eagles", Cameroon "The Indomitable Lions").
    • Common for domestic clubs as well. The Premier League currently includes The Tigers (Hull), The Black Cats (Sunderland), The Eagles (Crystal Palace), The Foxes (Leicester), The Magpies (Newcastle), The Swans (Swansea) and The Throstles (West Bromwich Albion, though largely out of use).
  • Many American sports teams—too many to count, really. A decent estimate is that about a quarter to half the sports teams in the US and Canada are named for animals, and all of those will exploit this in their advertising.
  • Kobe Bryant is known as "The Black Mumba".

  • Most of the Cirque du Soleil shows directed by Franco Dragone from Saltimbanco through La Nouba invoke bird imagery, usually through one or more characters and their costume(s).
    • Saltimbanco: The Songbird (the lead singer).
    • Mystere: The Red Bird, the Birds of Prey, and the bungee trapeze artists.
    • Alegria: The evil nobles are known as the Nostalgic Old Birds, and wear masks that appear a cross between human and bird faces.
    • Quidam: Zoe has a pet bird in a cage in the opening scene.
    • La Nouba: The Green Bird.
  • A Little Night Music:
    Carl-Magnus: Watch him, Charlotte. Watch them both like a...
    Charlotte: Hawk, I know, dear. You're a tiger, I'm a hawk. We're our own zoo.
  • Birds are strongly associated with Lizzie. Lizzie is fascinated by the pigeons in her family's barn, even talking to them sometimes, and is distraught when they are killed. She's described early on as "not the brightest bird," and the song "The Soul of the White Bird" is used as a metaphor for her mental state. She also makes lots of references to "flying away," and the last sound of the show is a flock of birds taking off — symbolizing Lizzie's freedom.
  • In Trifles, Minnie is represented by birds and this is given more details in the book A Jury of Her Peers, where, it's mentioned that, before her marriage, Minnie was a free spirit, who loved to sing and wore pretty clothes. Before and during her marriage, she kept a canary to which John killed, said canary representing herself from years ago and the the Minnie that was "killed" by her marriage. Likewise, the caged bird is meant to represent a woman's place in 19th/early 20th century society.

  • LEGO:
    • Numerous LEGO Castle and Aquazone factions.
    • The animal tribes of Legends of Chima utilize motifs based, of course, on themselves.
      • Vastus has a snake motif, with snake ornaments on his shoulders, a helmet based off a snake, and a snake-like staff with the fangs forming a blade that injects venom.
      • Although the '08 Makuta and Shadow Matoran respectively shapeshifted or were mutated into bat or insect-looking forms, it seems the masks that some wore had been vaguely animal-like to begin with.
    • Hero Factory's Jungle Planet line had the Heroes adopting various animal motifs for their new armor.
  • Mermaid High: Mari sports an octopus motif in her outfit.
  • Transformers: Bumblebee has a bug/insect motif that varies in strength between incarnations. Obviously, there's his name and yellow coloration evoking a bee, but his original vehicle mode is a Volkswagen Beetle. Some incarnations give him "wings" and/or "stingers" to play up the bee aspect.


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Alternative Title(s): Animal Motif


Vanitas [Bats]

Vanitas is often associated with bats. His black coat's long sleeves resemble bat wings, he hangs upside down from the roof when waking up Noe in the opening, and is sometimes depicted with fangs despite not being a vampire. The anime drives it home by having Vanitas cast a giant bat's shadow in episode 3 when he introduces himself to Jeanne upon meeting her for the first time.

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