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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. A woman represented by a large, predatory animal is most likely to reference Mama Bear because, like the lioness, it is simultaneously feminine and ferocious.


Some animals can be used as a motif for any sex, for example. Horses are usually associated with women or little girls because, stereotypically, All Girls Like Ponies. However, the elderly are often associated with horses as well, in stories where they have to prove themselves to the public that they aren't feeble or useless in their old age. In other cases, horses are used as motifs for carers, guardians or protectors, further emphasising how they are a unisex motif. 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 brooding, pragmatic antihero. Therefore, a shark motif wouldn't apply to an altruistic, cheerful paragon who favors clemency over brutality. 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 

Subtropes include:

Usually overlaps with Animal Stereotypes and National Animal Stereotypes. Wildlife Commentary Spoof is this trope lampshaded and played for laughs.


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  • 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.

    Comic Books 
  • Spider-Man is arguably the Trope Codifier since many of his villains are distinctly patterned on animals:
    • Spiders appear as a motif in Marvel 1602, usually around Peter Parquagh. Given who his modern counterpart is, spiders seem to be a symbol for destiny (perhaps a reference to the web of Fate).
    • Many Spider-Man foes also have animal motifs. J. Michael Straczynski's run posited that Spidey is being assaulted by envious pretenders who subconsciously realize that he is a true totemic champion. Spider-Man: The Darkest Hours, a book by Jim Butcher based on this run, introduces the siblings of Morlun, an Implacable Man and Energy Vampire who feeds on this type, and it turns out that every Animal-Themed Superbeing has this connection even if it's not obvious. Black Cat is a Badass Normal; she wasn't bitten by a radioactive cat and given feline powers. Yet, if she wasn't cat enough to be delicious and nutritious to the likes of Morlun, she'd never have chosen the name. That's why Spidey, Cat, and even the Rhino must team up when Mortia, Thanis, and Malos come to town.
    • Hunted, the first story event from Nick Spencer's Spider-Man Lampshades this when Spider-Man points out that it's "not hard to see the theme here" among the many animal-themed rogues being rounded for Kraven the Hunter's latest evil scheme. Two of the bad guys doing the rounding up, Taskmaster and Black Ant actually discuss in a dark comedic way whether Hammerhead, the mob-boss with a metal plate in his skull fits given the shark name but they decide that he hadn't committed, i.e. actually dress up and use gadgets which fit his animal gimmick. When all the rounding up is done, Taskmaster gloats to Black Ant, when he betrays him, that hey an ant is also an animal.
  • Batman decided to take up bat-themed crimefighting after a bat crashed through his window, which he interpreted as an omen. He strikes from the shadows, wears a costume that makes him look like a giant bat, and has a variety of occasionally-used gadgets that can simulate things like sonar. The similarities pretty much end there, since bats don't punch things very often.
    • Selina Kyle is a Classy Cat-Burglar, and dresses the part too. She's clever, elusive, pulls of heists wearing a mask that resembles cat ears, and is associated with black cats in particular. She also literally keeps cats around her apartment like a old lady.
    • Dick Grayson and every other character whose taken up the mantle of Robin is generally associated with birds.
    • The Scott Snyder run on the comics attempted to give the Joker a motif of his own; Flies.
  • Psychic operatives in Matt Fraction's Casanova all seem to have differing animal totems that manifest when they use their powers. The protagonist had spiders then upgraded to crows and his villainous sister had snakes.
  • Wolverine, a short, stocky, violent, foul-smelling Canadian with a talent for surviving tough conditions.
  • Judge Dredd: Judges' uniforms have a distinctive eagle motif to them, in keeping with the Big Meg's Eagleland origins. Other cities have this too, usually referencing the locale. For example, Brit Cit has a lion motif to its judge uniforms, and the judges in Africa has a lion and a gazelle. Some of the Dark Judges have extinct pterodactyls on their right shoulders as a hint to what their job is. Averted by East Meg judges, who wear shoulder pads decorated with red stars.
  • Loki developed certain associations with magpies in some stories, maybe not surprisingly for someone who is generally trouble and bad news, not to mention a thief and conman.
  • Arawn: Arawn and Engus resemble wolves; Math and Kern resemble lions.
  • The Punisher: In one story, Frank partners with a High-Class Call Girl to infiltrate a criminal's party (well, not so much partners as blackmail her into it by taking the notebook where she writes down her connections). The story is told from her perspective, and she recalls her youth raising dogs from which she learned to fit people into two categories: dogs and wolves. At the end of the story, she puts Frank in the "lions" category.
  • Wonder Woman: The Greek pantheon keeps some of their ties to their sacred animals, usually whittled down to one animal to correlate to each deity, and some gods with no sacred animals in the original mythology gain animal motifs in the comics:
    • Aphrodite wears an oversized shirt with a dove on it in Wonder Woman (Rebirth), and is accompanied by other dove related imagery when she wants to make a big entrance.
    • Apollo's ravens show up with less frequency than many of the other god's related animals but they are there.
    • Ares maintains his tie to both serpents and dogs, mostly visible through his sons Phobos and Deimos who accompany him on the battlefield in the guise of monstrous dogs, and Phobos sometimes manifesting his head as writhing cobras.
    • Artemis will occasionally manifest with slender deer antlers.
    • Athea is almost always seen with her owl, except for that time she was an anthropomorphic owl herself.
    • Dionysus is tied to foxes in The New 52, unusual as his sacred animals in mythology were panthers, bulls and serpents.
    • Hades remains fond of dogs, and is often accompanied by Cerberus.
    • Hera has multiple articles of clothing heavily decorated with peacock feathers, and her diadem has a very simplified peacock centerpiece.
    • Heracles is usually wearing the Nemean Lion skin, and even when he's not his girdle and greaves are engraved with lions.
    • Hermes is still connected to hawks, and even takes on hawk like attributes like talons in some manifestations.
    • Zeus is tied to eagles, best seen in The New 52 with his feathered cape.
    • In the Elseworld Wonder Woman: Warbringer Phobos's helmet is adorned with a relief of Medusa's head with the serpents arched and ready to strike, his chariot also has a snake motif and his teeth are like many thin curved viper fangs. His twin Deimos has a helmet adorned with a relief of a roaring lion, chariot with a lion motif and lion-like teeth and lips.
    • Wonder Woman (1942): During the Golden and Silver Ages Diana herself had an eagle motif, with an eagle embroidered in gold across her chest in her superhero costume and an eagle even showing up to help her fight Artemis.
  • Mr. Dig in Sink wears a fox mask.

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

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

  • School Shock has Super Soldier Cyborgs named Vanguards. They are themed on bees, praying mantises, ants, moths and spiders.
  • 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.

  • Clazziquai Project has pigs in all of its artwork, and they are also seen extensively in the video for "Sweety"; additionally, their debut album was named Instant Pig.
  • Singer Christopher Cross has a flamingo featured in the artwork for all of his albums in some form. His logo also depicts a flamingo indented in the "O" in "Cross".
  • Cormorant (unsurprisingly) have a lot of bird imagery, although serpents occasionally pop into their lyrics. The album Metazoa also mentions at least one animal in each song, but this was unintentional on their end.
  • Swedish group Katatonia has a lot of bird imagery in their album artwork and music videos.
  • Each of the twelve LOONA members is assigned a representative animal that appears in her own solo music video. A map appears in the Girl Front music video decorated with animal stickers to represent the members and foreshadow unrevealed members. Yves plays with a claw machine in New that is filled with animal plushies, with the most focus on her own swan and YeoJin's frog. Go Won's animal is a butterfly, which reappears in the group's 2019 single, Butterfly, in various forms.
  • The music video of Gangnam Style has horses in it, most likely because it's funny.
  • Suede had quite a bit of animal imagery in their lyrics and music videos, with songs like "Animal Lover", "Animal Nitrate", "We are the Pigs", "Where the Pigs Don't Fly", etc.
  • As of her reputation album, Taylor Swift seems to have adopted snakes as her animal of choice.
  • Blue Butterfly by Violet UK uses The Butterfly Of Life And Death as its symbolism. An insect motif, but as there's no separate trope for insects yet...
    • Speaking of insect motifs, Papa Roach was known for its use of cockroaches in the cover for Infest, as well as their music videos, most notably "Between Angels and Insects", in which cockroaches come out of Jacoby Shaddix's mouth.
  • YUP's 1994 story album Toppatakkeja Ja Toledon Terasta has a main character detective Henri Blavatsky with a mole motif, presenting the character as an one-man underground army on the second song of the album, Minä olen myyrä (I am a mole).
  • Radiohead came to adopt a stylized "Modified Bear" character as their mascot with the promotion for and release of Kid A in 2000; the character would reappear throughout the rest of the band's lifetime and act as a constant visual motif for them.

  • Norse Mythology:
    • Loki is associated with fish. In the Faroese ballad Loka Táttur, he transforms a boy into a grain in the middle of a flounder's roe to hide him from a jötunn who wanted to murder the child, and Loki uses fishing as part of his ruse against the giant.note  He's also the inventor of the fishing net, and he once shape-shifted into a salmon to evade the Æsir.
    • Odin is associated with ravens. He has two ravens called Huginn and Muninn. note  He's also titled "Raven-God" by The Prose Edda. He's also associated with wolves, he has two wolves by his side called Geri and Freki. note  In The Prose Edda he's destined to be killed by Fenrir, a colossal wolf. Odin is also the one who set the wolves Hati and Skoll on the sun and moon when they refused to move. note 
  • In Greek Mythology Heracles (popularly known by the Roman name Hercules) is associated with lions. His most famous act was slaying The Nemean Lion by strangulation and then wearing its hide as a cloak. He's also famous for his divine strength and courage. Heracles is also responsible for the creation of the Leo constellation as Zeus commemorated this labour by placing the Lion in the sky. In the mythology of Theseus, Heracles and Theseus met and befriended each other after a young Theseus mistook his cloak for an actual lion and bravely attacked it, earning Heracle's respect.
  • In Celtic Mythology, the Morrigan has crows, which is her preferred animal form. Badb, a goddess whose name means "crow," is either one of her titles, her sister or an aspect of her, depending on the source.

  • 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".

    Tabletop Games 
  • In 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons, the familiars of wizards, sorcerers, and adepts bestow minor skill bonuses to their masters, which vary with the familiar's animal type. While some grant bonuses derived from their genuine aptitudes (e.g. Move Silently for a cat), other bonuses reflect the animal's anthropomorphized reputation (Bluff for snakes, Appraise for ravens).
    • This was present in 4th Edition too, with the Arcane Familiar feat available to those playing a class with the Arcane power source.
  • Exalted: Many Exalts take an animal for their character motifs. Lunars take it one step further, in that they can turn into any animals, provided they ritually hunt the animal first. Infernals on the other hand, takes some characteristics of their Coadjutors, which tends to be demonic version of certain animals. (Erymanthoi are demon-gorilla, Theodozjia are demon-cats, etc.)
  • All of the Clans from BattleTech are named after various badass animals. Many of them extraterrestrial or genetically engineered (i.e. the sea fox was an aquatic predator native to Strana Mechty, while the diamond shark was engineered by Clan Snow Raven to wipe out sea foxes after a dispute with Clan Sea Fox, who later changed their name to Clan Diamond Shark in defiance). Except for Clan Blood Spirit. They had an animal named after them.
    • Reinforced by Clan warriors sometimes wearing full-head masks patterned after their Clan's respective animal for ceremonial purposes. While this is seen most frequently in the fiction when the Khans assemble for council, it's not actually limited to them; similar occasions involving lower-ranking warriors are simply not shown as often.
  • The Imperium of Man is symbolized by a double-headed eagle, in homage of various great empires through human history.
    • Several Space Marine chapters have taken up animal themes too, like Space Wolves, Raven Guard, Minotaurs, etc.
    • The Alpha Legion's use of the hydra, the many-headed serpent of Greek Mythology, alludes to their command structure and immunity to Decapitated Army: cut off one head, and two more will sprout out from its place.
    • The Chaos Gods have their own: Savage Wolves for Khorne, Creepy Crows for Tzeentch, and Flies Equals Evil for Nurgle. These are just to the most easily recognised motifs, however, and there are many animals that befit the Chaos Gods. For example, snakes can be symbols of Slaanesh and of Tzeentch, bulls of Khorne or Slaanesh, and toads and slugs of Nurgle, etc. In the background lore, it's said that Chaos cults will often disguise themselves as unassuming animal totemists.
  • The various clans of Legend of the Five Rings are each named for an animal, and each draws on the symbolism of that animal as inspiration for their clan's nature.

  • 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 had 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 (in the story, not on the toy, duh).
      • Although the '08 Makuta and Shadow Matoran respectively shapeshifted or were mutated into bat or insect-looking forms, it seems the mask 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.


Video Example(s):

Alternative Title(s): Animal Motif


Five Deadly Venoms [Various]

The Five Deadly Poisons are each masters of the five Kung Fu-styles of the Poison Clan: Centipede, Snake, Scorpion, Lizard, and Toad.

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