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Therianthropy: Wellbeing, Schizotypy, and Autism in Individuals Who Self-Identify as Non-Human

In: Society & Animals
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  • 1 Psychology Department, The University of Buckingham, United Kingdom
  • | 2 Psychology Division, University of Northampton, United Kingdom
  • | 3 Psychology Division, University of Northampton, United Kingdom
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Abstract

Therianthropy is the belief that one is at least part non-human animal. This study aimed to address the dichotomization surrounding therianthropy in relation to mental health and wellbeing. One hundred and twelve therians and 265 non-therians completed Ryff’s Scales of Psychological Wellbeing, the O-LIFE questionnaire, and the Autism Spectrum Quotient. The results showed that therians scored lower on variables that are associated with positive social relationships. Such findings may be explained by cognitive factors and/or social factors that are associated with the stigmatization of cross-species identities. However, being a therian moderated the relationship between both autism and introverted anhedonia in relation to autonomy. Thus, a therian identity may act as a protective factor for those experiencing higher levels of autism and schizotypy.

Abstract

Therianthropy is the belief that one is at least part non-human animal. This study aimed to address the dichotomization surrounding therianthropy in relation to mental health and wellbeing. One hundred and twelve therians and 265 non-therians completed Ryff’s Scales of Psychological Wellbeing, the O-LIFE questionnaire, and the Autism Spectrum Quotient. The results showed that therians scored lower on variables that are associated with positive social relationships. Such findings may be explained by cognitive factors and/or social factors that are associated with the stigmatization of cross-species identities. However, being a therian moderated the relationship between both autism and introverted anhedonia in relation to autonomy. Thus, a therian identity may act as a protective factor for those experiencing higher levels of autism and schizotypy.

Introduction

A recent definition of therianthropy is that it is the experience of feeling or believing that one is part or whole non-human animal mentally, spiritually, or biologically but that this does not constitute actual physical transformation (Strill, 2008). Although the classic use of the term therianthropy in myths and archaeological artefacts indicates actual physical changes to a human-non-human animal hybrid, the therian community today is clear that physical transformation is an impossibility.

Since 1993, there has been a growing online community of therians; therian is a self-identified term coined by the community that comes from the term therianthrope. The type of non-human animal(s) integrated into the person’s identity is known as their theriotype(s). Lupa (2007) reported, through an online survey, that a variety of both extant and extinct theriotypes are identified within the therian community, the most common being canids, followed closely by felines. Such surveys conducted by the non-academic community are informative but lack the procedures in place to confirm the scientific rigor of the studies. In fact, little academic research has been conducted on the therian community, in part because of a fear, experienced by many members of the community, of being labelled as mentally ill (Grivell, Clegg, & Roxburgh, 2014).

While certainly in countries such as the United Kingdom and the USA, national identity is in part constructed around positive images of non-human animals (the symbol of the eagle is synonymous with American patriotism) and around being animal-loving nations, there is also considerable use of non-human animal images and metaphors to denote negative attributes of both individuals and groups (Baker, 1993). Therianthropic images often suggest impurity, being subhuman, and lack of integrity, as well as challenge the individual’s bodily identity and sense of self (Baker, 1993). Those individuals who identify as therians thereby challenge conventional conceptions of “being human” and in doing so may invoke categorizations of mental illness.

The dichotomy of humans and culture versus animals and nature is strongly advocated in the “West” but is not pervasive across all human societies (DeMello, 2012; Hurn, 2012). Hunter-gatherer groups in particular often hold much more fluid concepts regarding identity between non-human animals and humans. Beliefs vary but themes around non-human animal ancestry, reincarnation, and transformation into other species are some examples (DeMello, 2012; Hurn, 2012). Although such beliefs have historically been present, in Western societies today the human-non-human animal boundary is firmly sealed.

This is borne out in the treatment of therianthropy in much of the Western world where it has been situated within psychiatry (Coll, O’Sullivan, & Browne, 1985; Garlipp, Godecke-Koch, Dietrich, & Haltenhof, 2004; Keck, Pope, Hudson, McElroy, & Kulick, 1988; Khalil, Dahdah, & Richa, 2012). The term used in psychiatry is often lycanthropy, rather than therianthropy, and there is some disagreement as to whether these terms are interchangeable or distinct (Garlipp, 2007; Keck et al., 1988). It is not in the scope of this paper to resolve this conflict, and so for the purposes of this discussion, the literature on lycanthropy will be considered to be relevant to that of therianthropy.

Clinical cases of lycanthropy have been documented across the world (Coll et al., 1985; Keck et al., 1988; Khalil et al., 2012; Nasirian, Banazadeh, & Kheradmand, 2009; Nejad & Toofani, 2005; Rao, Gangadhar, & Janakiramiah, 1999). The majority of psychiatric reports consider it a symptom of functional psychosis (Nejad & Toofani, 2005; Rao et al., 1999), although Moselhy (1999) suggests the possibility of an organic origin in some cases. There is also some evidence that intoxication with substances such as alcohol, cannabis, and ecstasy can induce lycanthropic delusions, although these substances may function to expose a previously dormant psychosis (Keck et al., 1988; Nasirian et al., 2009). However, it should be noted that the literature on lycanthropy is based on small samples and there are inconsistencies in relation to its definition that may lead to questioning the validity of some of the claims.

Nevertheless, the view within psychiatry is that lycanthropy is a transient medical symptom that is alleviated by medication, although some advocate the use of psychotherapeutic techniques (Garlipp et al., 2004). The idea that such experiences are transient and treatable differentiates them from the experiences of a non-clinical population of self-identified therians. In a qualitative study that considered the identity of five therians, participants described their therianthropy as often beginning in childhood/teenage years and being a lifelong experience (Grivell et al., 2014). They were aware of the likely perceptions from society regarding their beliefs and talked about the need to control their therianthropic impulses.

Therianthropy has been aligned with transgenderism and the term “trans-species” has been coined by some therians to describe their experiences of feeling as if they were born into the wrong body (Grivell et al., 2014; Robertson, 2013). Robertson (2013) highlights how such experiences parallel the symptoms described in DSM-IV for Body Dysmorphic Disorder. This idea is further advanced by Gerbasi et al. (2008) in a study on “furries.” Furries are distinct from therians in that they are interested in anthropomorphic animals as opposed to real-life non-human animals. However, while furries and therians are separate groupings, there is crossover, with approximately one in five furries also claiming therian identity (Plante, Reysen, Roberts, & Gerbasi, 2013).

Gerbasi et al. (2008) asked a sample of furries two questions: “Do you consider yourself to be less than 100% human” and “If you could become 0% human, would you?” (p. 201). Those furries who answered in the affirmative for both questions were also more likely to agree with statements suggesting that they were a non-human species trapped in a human body and that they felt discomfort with their human body (Gerbasi et al., 2008). These responses are reflective of experiences of therians (Grivell et al., 2014), thus suggesting a therian presence within the sample.

Gerbasi et al. (2008) suggest that this group of participants may have “species identity disorder,” thus aligning such experiences with mental illness, although more recently Gerbasi et al. have moved away from such pathologization to a belief that the therian identity lies along a continuum of neurological diversity as opposed to it being a disorder (K. Gerbasi, personal communication, May 20, 2016). Probyn-Rapsey (2011) also disputes the pathologization of such experiences, highlighting the challenges that have been identified with aligning homosexuality and transgendered identities with mental illness. In particular, she proposes that such pathologization arises from the needs of those who maintain rigid identity boundaries to conserve the social norms.

Although experiencing unusual beliefs relative to the social norms is generally aligned with a predisposition towards mental illness, there is evidence that such beliefs may positively influence perceptions of levels of distress. Schofield and Claridge (2007) suggest that being high in unusual beliefs, which include magical thinking and perceptions outside of the social norms, and low in cognitive disorganization, which would indicate good concentration and decision making, interacted to allow paranormal experiences to be less distressing. Moreover, other studies have demonstrated that being high in unusual experiences and low in the negative aspects of schizotypy, such as cognitive disorganization and introverted anhedonia (a measure of an inability to enjoy physical and social pleasures), impacted positively on psychological wellbeing (Mohr & Claridge, 2015). Thus, unusual experiences and beliefs should not be automatically categorized as evidence of mental illness.

From a review of the literature, it appears that therianthropy has the potential to be contextualized as mental illness. However, more recent research has not provided any direct evidence of mental illness and has taken a less pathologizing perspective (Grivell et al., 2014; Lupa, 2007; Robertson, 2013). In fact, Robertson (2013) makes the association between the spiritual beliefs expressed by some therians and the beliefs of Neopagans and Neoshamans, suggesting that such beliefs are not beyond the boundaries of normality within the West. This dichotomy between pathologizing and normalizing therian experiences needs to be addressed in part by considering the wellbeing and mental health of therians. To this end, this study considered psychological wellbeing, schizotypy (a personality dimension that has associations with schizophrenia proneness but is also related to high levels of creativity in non-clinical samples), and autism in a sample of therians and non-therians.

An autism scale was included in the study, as anecdotally the therian community make claims that there are high numbers of “mildly autistic” individuals within the community, and there are some assertions that there are links between therianthropy and autism. Given that there is no previous research on these variables for therians, the predictions will be non-directional (two-tailed). The predictions are that there will be a significant difference between therians and non-therians on all scales of wellbeing, schizotypy, and autism; schizotypy and autism will predict therian status; and being a therian will act as a moderator variable (i.e., buffer the impact) between autism and wellbeing, and between negative schizotypy and wellbeing.

Materials and Methods

Participants

Therians

There were 112 self-identified therian participants, with an age range of 18 to 60 years (mean = 23.49 years, SD = 6.49 years). In terms of gender identity, 30 were male, 58 were female, 7 were transgendered, and 17 were other (gender neutral, androgynous, or gender fluid). In terms of ethnicity, therian participants were predominantly White British/American (44.6%), with 21.4% being other White background. Other ethnicities included Black African (1.8%), Black English/American (1.8%), Chinese (1.8%), mixed White/Caribbean (1.8%), South American (1.8%), Japanese (0.9%), mixed Asian/White (0.9%), mixed White/African (0.9%), and Native American (0.9%): 21.4% did not respond.

There were a variety of theriotypes represented within the therian sample, although carnivores predominated. Canids were the most common at 57.3%. Of these, wolves were the largest proportion (39.3% of all theriotypes), but foxes (4.5%), mixed canine (4.5%), dog (3.6%), coyote (1.8%), jackal (0.9%), dingo (0.9%), and cladotherian canine (0.9%) were also present. The second most common theriotype was feline at 19.7% of the therian sample. Felines were made up of big cat (9.8%), domestic cat (3.6%), cat (1.8%), cougar (1.8%), feline (1.8%), and cladotherian feline (0.9%). The third largest category was reptiles at 9.0%, which included dragons1 (6.3%), dinosaurs (1.8%), and snakes (0.9%). Anthropomorphic therians made up 2.7% of the therian sample. Other theriotypes included bird (2.7%), polymorph (1.8%), deer (0.9%), racoon (0.9%), and shark (0.9%). Therian participants had identified as therian for between 0 and 42 years (mean = 10.55 years, SD = 8.26 years).

Non-therians

There were 265 non-therians, with an age range of 18 to 64 years (mean = 21.72 years, SD = 7.14 years). Fifty were male, 211 were female, 0 were transgendered, and 4 were other. As with therians, the most commonly stated ethnicity for non-therians was White British/American (66.8%), with Black African (5.3%) and Indian (4%) being the next two most frequently identified ethnic categories. Other ethnicities for non-therians included other White background (3.4%), Black Caribbean (2.6%), mixed White/Caribbean (2.6%), Black British/American (1.9%), other Asian background (1.9%), mixed White/African (1.5%), Pakistani (1.1%), White Irish (0.8%), Chinese (0.8%), mixed Asian/White (0.8%), Bangladeshi (0.4%), and South American (0.4%).

Materials

Data were collected from self-identified therians and non-therians using an online questionnaire.

Demographic Questions

In the first section, participants were asked about gender identity, age, ethnicity, and employment status. They were also asked whether they had ever been diagnosed with a mental health problem, and if so, what diagnoses they had been given. However, it should be noted that participants may have included diagnoses that were not provided by a qualified mental health practitioner and instead self-diagnosed.

Therianthropy Questions

The second section asked all participants if they were a therian. The rest of this section was then for therians only to complete. Questions included naming their theriotype(s), and the length of time having identified as a therian.

Ryff’s Scales of Psychological Wellbeing

The third section consisted of Ryff’s Scales of Psychological Wellbeing; autonomy, environmental mastery, personal growth, positive relations with others, purpose in life, and self-acceptance (Ryff, 1989). These six scales consisted of nine items, and each of the items were rated on a Likert scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree. Higher scores indicate better wellbeing. There is evidence of good validity and reliability for these scales (Ryff, 1989). For the present study, Cronbach’s alpha scores (a measure of internal reliability of the scales) were all above the acceptable minimum of 0.7: autonomy (0.84), environmental mastery (0.83), personal growth (0.78), positive relations with others (0.84), purpose in life (0.81), and self-acceptance (0.88).

Oxford-Liverpool Inventory of Feelings and Experiences (O-LIFE) (Short Version)

The fourth section measured schizotypy. This scale is designed to measure the personality dimension schizotypy in a non-clinical population and is not a diagnostic tool. Although some literature (for example, see Mason, Linney, & Claridge, 2005) suggests that high scores on the schizotypy scale indicate proneness to psychosis, it should be noted that many individuals who score highly on this scale are not considered to have a mental health problem. It therefore felt appropriate to use this scale given the association of lycanthropy with psychosis in the psychiatric literature.

This measure consists of four factors: unusual experiences, cognitive disorganization, introverted anhedonia, and impulsive non-conformity. Participants are required to respond yes or no to a series of statements. A score of 1 is given for each answer in the affirmative except for reverse-scored items. Thus, higher scores indicate higher levels of schizotypy. The short-scales version of the O-LIFE Inventory demonstrates good reliability and validity (Mason et al., 2005). For the present study, Cronbach’s alphas were unusual experiences (0.79), cognitive disorganization (0.75), introverted anhedonia (0.70), and impulsive non-conformity (0.57). All schizotypy factors other than impulsive non-conformity had acceptable alpha levels. Further statistical analysis indicates that removing items from the impulsive non-conformity scale to improve the alpha level would make little difference in its reliability. While impulsive non-conformity will be considered in the results, the data should be considered with caution.

Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ)

The final section measured autism using the Autism Spectrum Quotient (Baron-Cohen, Wheelwright, Skinner, Martin, & Clubley, 2001). The AQ is a 50-item questionnaire that measures five different areas associated with autism: social skill, attention switching, attention to detail, communication, and imagination. Items are scored on a four-point Likert scale from definitely agree to definitely disagree. Each item scores one point if the response most closely associated with autism is identified either strongly or mildly. Higher scores indicate higher levels of autistic traits, although it should be noted that the AQ is not a diagnostic instrument. The AQ has demonstrated good validity and reliability (Hoekstra, Bartels, Cath, & Boomsma, 2008; Woodbury-Smith, Robinson, Wheelwright, & Baron-Cohen, 2005). For the present study, the Cronbach’s alpha for the whole scale was at an acceptable level of 0.81.

Methods

Therian participants were recruited through the following therianthropy internet forums with permission from the administrators: Werelist (http://www.werelist.net/), Otherkin (http://www.otherkincommunity.net/), and Forest Horizon (http://werebeastcommunity.proboards.com/). One member of the research team also had contact with a well-respected member of the therian community who was able to distribute information on the study to therians who did not engage in online forums.

The non-therian community was partly accessed from a university in the United Kingdom. The researchers went into first—and second-year undergraduate research methods classes to advertise the study. Members of the therianthropy research group, which consists of therian and non-therian members (including the first and third authors), also placed adverts for the study on social media sites such as Facebook. The remainder of the non-therian sample consisted of non-therian individuals who engage in therian forums and individuals with an interest in therian research.

Participants were directed to the study via a link. This took them to information on the study that allowed them to give fully informed consent. Those individuals wishing to participate then pressed the consent button which led them to the first set of questions. At the end of the study, the participants were debriefed. The study was given ethical clearance by The University of Northampton Social Sciences Ethics Committee, and the British Psychological Society (BPS, 2007) guidelines for online research were adhered to.

Results

The mean scores for each of the wellbeing and mental health variables were calculated to allow for any omission of data by participants. Any participant who omitted more than 10% of the questions on any scale had the data for that scale removed. The data were assessed for normality to determine whether parametric or non-parametric tests should be conducted. To assess normality of data, z scores for skew and kurtosis were calculated by dividing the skew/kurtosis score by their standard error. A z score of above 2.58 can be considered as not normally distributed (Clark-Carter, 2010). These scores were considered alongside visual inspections of histograms and Q-Q plots and indicated several violations of the normality assumption. Thus, due to the multiple violations of normality, and with relatively small sample sizes in some subsamples, non-parametric analyses were conducted throughout, with the exception of regression analysis.

Previous research has shown that age and gender identity are confounds within wellbeing (Lindfors, Berntsson, & Lundberg, 2006), schizotypy (Mason & Claridge, 2006), and autism (Baron-Cohen et al., 2001) literature: comparisons were considered prior to any analysis to determine if the groups (therian/non-therian) could be classed as homogenous with regard to age and gender identity. In order to control for multiple testing and possible Type 1 errors, a stricter α level was set at .01. There were significant differences between the gender identities in levels of positive relations (Χ2 (3) = 21.285, p < .001), environmental mastery (Χ2 (3) = 13.682, p = .003), and full AQ score (Χ2 (3) = 24.996, p < .001). However, post-hoc analysis indicates these differences were in the “other” category, so “other” was not included due to the small sample sizes.

There was a significant correlation of age with autonomy (ρ = .156, p = .001). Because there was also a significant difference in age between therian (Median: 21, Range: 18-60) and non-therian (Median: 19, Range: 18-64) groups (z = 4.025, p < .001, r = .209), caution should be used in the autonomy analysis; however, age was not controlled for due to the small effect sizes, where effect sizes are standardized measures of the magnitude of the difference.

Comparisons of Therians and Non-Therians for Autism and Schizotypy

Multiple non-parametric comparison tests were conducted to assess the differences between the therian identity group and the non-therian identity group. Descriptive statistics (medians and ranges are reported due to the data violating assumptions of normality), inferential statistics, effect sizes, and confidence intervals of the median differences for each of the dependent variables can be found in Tables 1 and 2. As can be seen in Table 1, there were significant differences between the groups with medium effect sizes for the full autism score and for two of the subscales, social skills, and communication. In each case, individuals who identified as therian scored higher than their non-therian counterparts. There were no significant differences between the groups on levels of imagination, attention switching, or attention to detail.

Table 1
Table 1

Descriptive and inferential statistics for the differences between therian and non-therian samples for autism

Citation: Society & Animals 27, 4 (2019) ; 10.1163/15685306-12341540

Table 2
Table 2

Descriptive and inferential statistics for the differences between therian and non-therian samples for Schizotypy

Citation: Society & Animals 27, 4 (2019) ; 10.1163/15685306-12341540

Table 2 indicates that therians scored higher on the schizotypy subscales of unusual experiences and introverted anhedonia, with a medium difference effect size. Impulsive non-conformity approached significance, with a small effect size. However, for cognitive disorganization, both groups had similar scores.

Mental Health Diagnosis

For therians, 59.8% claimed that they had not been diagnosed with a mental illness and 40.2% claimed that they had. Of the non-therians, 83.8% claimed that they had not been diagnosed with a mental illness and 15.8% claimed that they had (0.4% had missing data). The association between mental health diagnosis and whether or not an individual is a therian was significant, with a medium effect size (Χ² (1) = 26.044, N = 376, p ≤.001, φ = -.263 [-.354, -.167]). The odds of therians being diagnosed with a mental health issue were three times (OR: 3.6, 95%; CI: 2.15-5.86) those of non-therians. Types of mental health diagnoses reported can be seen in Table 3.

Table 3
Table 3

Common mental health diagnoses according to therian status in those diagnosed with mental illness

Citation: Society & Animals 27, 4 (2019) ; 10.1163/15685306-12341540

A score of 32+ on the AQ may indicate clinical levels of autistic traits, although this is not grounds for a diagnosis since levels of distress caused by experiences, as described in the AQ, need to be considered before a diagnosis can be made (Baron-Cohen et al., 2001). Scores on the AQ can range between 0 and 50. Since a computed mean score of 50 = 1, a score of 25 = .5, etcetera. Therefore, a score of 32 = .64, so anyone scoring .64 or above would be considered somewhere on the autistic spectrum. The relations between therian status and the AQ score were significant χ² (1, N = 354) = 11.331, p = .002, φ = .179 [.077,.278] such that being a therian was associated with having an AQ score of 32 or higher. The odds of a high autism score for therians were almost six times (OR: 5.93, 95%; CI: 2.04-17.31) those of non-therians.

Predictors of Therian Status

It was hypothesized that schizotypy and autism may predict therian status. However, wellbeing is not a trait and is itself predicted by traits such as personality (Deiner, Suh, Lucas, & Smith, 1999; Weiss, Bates, & Luciano, 2008), so it is unlikely to predict therian status. Therefore, a logistic regression analysis was performed with therian status as the dependent variable (DV), with unusual experiences, cognitive disorganization, introverted anhedonia, impulsive non-conformity, and full AQ as predictor variables. A total of 354 cases were analyzed (23 participants were excluded from this analysis due to non-completion of one or more of the scales; of these, 87% were non-therians), and the full model significantly predicted therian status. The model accounted for between 26.7% and 37.7% of the variance in therian status, with 89.0% of the non-therians and 52.3% of the therians successfully predicted. Overall, 77.7% of the predictions were accurate (see Table 4 for individual coefficients).

Table 4
Table 4

Coefficients, wald statistics, probability values, and confidence intervals for each predictor variable

Citation: Society & Animals 27, 4 (2019) ; 10.1163/15685306-12341540

Table 4 shows that unusual experiences, cognitive disorganization, introverted anhedonia, and the overall autism score reliably predicted therian status. The values of the coefficients revealed that increases in scores in unusual experiences, introverted anhedonia, and full autism are associated with an increase in the odds of being a therian. However, the values of the coefficients revealed that an increase in cognitive disorganization scores is associated with an increase in the odds of being a non-therian. Of all the variables, unusual experiences had the greatest impact on therian/non-therian status.

Comparisons of Therians and Non-Therians for Wellbeing

For levels of wellbeing, significant differences were found between the therians and the non-therians on the subscales of positive relations and environmental mastery, with small to medium effect sizes. In both cases, non-therians scored higher. There was also a significant difference in autonomy; therians experienced greater autonomy than non-therians. Purpose in life approached significance; however, the effect size was very small. There was no difference between the groups on the subscales of self-acceptance and personal growth (see Table 5).

Table 5
Table 5

Descriptive and inferential statistics for the differences between therian and non-therian samples for wellbeing

Citation: Society & Animals 27, 4 (2019) ; 10.1163/15685306-12341540

Moderating Effect of Therian Status on Autism/Schizotypy and Wellbeing Status

In order to assess the potential moderating effect of therian status on the relationship between autism and wellbeing, as well as on schizotypy and wellbeing, the data were split by therian/non-therian status and correlations were run for the separate groups. To avoid multiple testing, the minimum difference in correlation coefficients to gain a statistically significant effect at α = .05 was computed using an adjustment of equation 1. Using z = 1.96 and sample sizes of 112 (therian) and 265 (non-therian), any difference between correlation coefficients of .22 and above would be classed as significant at p = .05. (r1 = correlation coefficient for the therians’ relationship between autism/schizotypy and wellbeing; r2 = correlation coefficient for the non-therians’ relationship between autism/schizotypy and wellbeing; n1 = number of therians; n2 = number of non-therians).

Equation 1:

Two relationships indicated differences in coefficients in simple z-score difference (diff) calculations. Both were within the outcome variable of autonomy: the relationship between autism and autonomy (therian: r = -.10, non-therian: r = -.33, rdiff = .23), and the relationship between introverted anhedonia and autonomy (therian: r = -.01, non-therian: r = -.23, rdiff = .22). Follow-up moderated multiple regression assessing the interaction between autism and therianthropy in predicting the outcome variable of autonomy indicated a significant interaction effect, with 14.8% variance explained overall. See Table 6 for the individual coefficients.

Table 6
Table 6

Impact of therianthropy and autism on levels of autonomy

Citation: Society & Animals 27, 4 (2019) ; 10.1163/15685306-12341540

Multiple regression assessing the interaction between introverted anhedonia and therianthropy in predicting the outcome variable of autonomy indicated a significant interaction effect, with 13.5% variance explained. See Table 7 for the individual coefficients.

Table 7
Table 7

Impact of therianthropy and introverted anhedonia on levels of autonomy

Citation: Society & Animals 27, 4 (2019) ; 10.1163/15685306-12341540

As can be seen in Figures 1 and 2, identifying as a therian appears to buffer the relationship between autism and autonomy, as well as between introverted anhedonia and autonomy. In both cases, individuals who identify as therians report the same levels of autonomy regardless of their levels of reported autism and introverted anhedonia, whereas individuals who do not identify as a therian show the expected relationship in each case. For example, with higher levels of autism, non-therians show lower levels of autonomy.

Figure 1
Figure 1

Interaction effect of therianthropy and autism on levels of autonomy

Citation: Society & Animals 27, 4 (2019) ; 10.1163/15685306-12341540

Figure 2
Figure 2

Interaction effect of therianthropy and introverted anhedonia on levels of autonomy

Citation: Society & Animals 27, 4 (2019) ; 10.1163/15685306-12341540

Discussion

This paper is, to the authors’ knowledge, the first attempt to consider the wellbeing and mental health of therians as compared to non-therians. The variety of theriotypes was broadly similar to previously documented surveys by the therian community, with canids and felines being most common (Lupa, 2007). Also, it is noteworthy that the majority of ethnicities for the therian sample were not associated with societies that incorporate therianthropic beliefs into their cultures. The time a participant had been a therian ranged from 0 to 42 years, with a mean of 10.55 years; this suggests that it is not a transient condition, as argued for lycanthropy.

A pattern emerged from a consideration of therians and non-therians that suggests that therians have greater difficulties in skills and experiences associated with relationships with other humans. Within the AQ sub-scales, there was a clear division for therians who score more towards the autistic end of the spectrum on the sub-scales of social skills and communication, but for those sub-scales not associated with social skills, there was no significant difference between therians and non-therians. Moreover, for wellbeing, the two scales on which therians scored significantly lower than non-therians were positive relations with others, where low scorers had limited numbers of close relationships with others, often feeling alone, having difficulty feeling empathetic towards others, and not being willing to make concessions to maintain relationships (Ryff, 1989); and environmental mastery, particularly in relation to questions around fitting in with others.

Given that the therian sample scored higher than non-therians on the autism scale, this may suggest that cognitive differences associated with autism may also impact on therian wellbeing. For example, research on adults with autism spectrum disorders has shown that high levels of loneliness, lower numbers of friendships, and/or the perception of availability of support were associated with lower wellbeing scores (Mazurek, 2014; Renty & Roeyers, 2006). Future research could explore whether this was the case for a therian sample. Nevertheless, it should not be assumed that those higher on the autistic spectrum experience the same psychological and relational needs as those lower on the autistic spectrum. Some of these relationships may be with other therians who have similar relational requirements, which allows for positive relationships but not as necessarily defined by scales designed for non-autistic individuals.

However, social factors may also explain these differences between therians and non-therians. When humans cross species boundaries, then such behavior and beliefs can be considered to be evidence of serious psychiatric illness (Myers, 1999). Such beliefs continue to be supported in psychiatry as evidenced by the literature on clinical lycanthropy. Given the possible societal associations between “madness” and therianthropic beliefs, therians can find it difficult to form relationships with non-therians, and when they do, they may have to suppress an aspect of themselves that is a fundamental part of their identity (Grivell et al., 2014), making close relationships difficult to maintain. Even if they are removed from the psychiatric arena, those who deviate from social norms are generally considered aberrant in some way.

For children in the West, the job of their carers is to guide them to develop into civilized adults who indicate a clear division between humans and other animals (Melson, 2001). Those older children and adults who embody more animalistic behavior are therefore considered immature and defective in cognitive abilities such as rationality (DeMello, 2012, pp. 330-331; Myers, 1999). In Western societies, the very essence of being human is focused around the cognitive and behavioral “superiority” compared to other animals (Hurn, 2012). For therians, these social constructions around humanness and animality present considerable barriers to expressing their therianthropy and thus developing relationships with non-therians.

It is possible that the theriotype may implicitly influence the acceptance, or lack thereof, of the therianthropic belief. Humans throughout history have accorded non-human animals differing degrees of status dependent on factors such as the non-human animal’s perceived usefulness, attractiveness, and human-like characteristics (Bjerke, Ødegårdstuen, & Kaltenborn, 1998; DeMello, 2012; Driscoll, 1995). Currently, felines and canines (the most common theriotypes in this study) can arguably possess such highly desirable characteristics, including being majestic, cute, loyal, and courageous (DeMello, 2012; Lynn, 2010); this may enable those who have such non-human animals incorporated into their identity to more easily adjust to being a therian. Thus, for therians, the acceptance of their therianthropy and theriotype may be impacted by the socially constructed status of the non-human animal, and this may influence psychological wellbeing.

Although further research is required to examine the above claims, there is some support for therianthropy either having no effect or positively impacting on psychological wellbeing since in this study, there were no differences between therians and non-therians in purpose in life, self-acceptance, and personal growth, and therians scored higher than non-therians on autonomy (although caution should be exercised when interpreting the result for autonomy given the confound with age, as discussed in the Results). Thus, although therians may experience more difficulty in social relationships than non-therians, a comparison of their scores on these four wellbeing scales indicated that therians have greater independence, are equally comfortable with themselves, and have similar levels of positive future planning and self-actualization as non-therians.

Furthermore, being a therian moderated the relationship between both autism and introverted anhedonia with autonomy. While it would be predicted that both high levels for the AQ and introverted anhedonia would reduce levels of psychological wellbeing (Abbott & Byrne, 2012; Mohr & Claridge, 2015; van Heijst & Geurts, 2015), which was true for non-therians, being a therian allowed those higher on these variables to maintain higher levels of autonomy. One explanation for this may lie in the significantly higher levels of unusual beliefs in the therian sample.

More recently, there has been a move away from labelling those with high levels of unusual experiences (positive schizotypy) as pathological and instead a move towards consideration of the healthy aspects of positive schizotypy. Research has found that participants do view their unusual beliefs, such as belief in extrasensory perception and miracles, as positive and useful, and such beliefs enable them to gain a greater understanding of themselves and the world (Boden & Berenbaum, 2004). From this, a model has been proposed that suggests that individuals high in positive schizotypy may be able to integrate their unusual experiences and beliefs in a more functional manner by developing an adaptive cognitive framework that provides an acceptable, non-distressing and coherent explanation for such beliefs (Mohr & Claridge, 2015).

There is also some evidence that low cognitive disorganization may also impact on Mohr and Claridge’s (2015) model by increasing the individual’s ability to develop a coherent framework (Mohr & Claridge, 2015; Schofield & Claridge, 2007). Within this study, therians demonstrated no significant difference in cognitive disorganization and significantly higher levels of unusual experiences compared to non-therians. Grivell et al. (2014) found that therians tended to develop clear and complex belief frameworks around their therianthropy which ranged from biological to psychological to spiritual. While schizotypy may impact on the development of therian beliefs, it can also be theorized that for therians, being high on unusual experiences enables them to develop a coherent narrative around their cross-species identity that facilitates their ability to resist social norms, evaluate themselves in relation to their own standards, and overall to be autonomous.

Although therians were not statistically lower than non-therians on cognitive disorganization, the fact that they did not score higher suggests that their levels of cognitive disorganization did not impede their construction of a positive framework for their beliefs. It should be noted that the moderating effect of being a therian only applied to autonomy and not to the other psychological wellbeing constructs, especially those related to social relationships. Abbot, Do, and Byrne (2012) have suggested that lower wellbeing in those with high schizotypy scores may be in part explained by poorer social cognition and, in particular, impairments in emotional processing. Thus, being higher in imagination and unusual experiences may not be enough to overcome such difficulties in social cognition. Further research is required to investigate these relationships in more depth.

Limitations

While this study provides some insight into the wellbeing and mental health of therians, the representativeness of the sample to the therian population should be considered. Given the current paucity of research on the therian community, it is not possible to know whether the participants in this study are characteristic of the therian community as a whole. Advertising for the study primarily occurred on online forums. While attempts were made to also engage therians not involved in the online forums, it is difficult to gauge the responsiveness of these communities.

The therian sample was strongly skewed towards younger participants. The development of therianthropy over the lifetime has not been documented, and so the experiences and perceptions of such a group may not be generalizable to older therians. While previous unpublished surveys by therians suggest that predators such as wolves, dogs, and cats predominate in the therian community, the very small numbers of prey animals in this sample may suggest that the theriotypes were not wholly representative of those found in the therian community. As more studies are published, under-represented therians may be encouraged to engage in research and it may become clearer what constitutes a representative sample from the therian community.

Conclusion

Overall the findings suggest that therians are functioning well. This research suggests some problems in relations with other humans, which may be explained by the need to suppress from others their therian identity and associated behaviors (Grivell et al., 2014) and/or by cognitive differences similar to individuals with autism. However, being a therian appears to moderate the impact of features of negative schizotypy and autism on some aspects of wellbeing by constructing a coherent belief system around their therianthropic experiences that allows an acceptable integration of their human and non-human animal identities within a society that clearly delineates the two. Thus, this research encourages a move away from the pathologization of therianthropic beliefs, which may emerge from rigid constructions of what constitutes humanness, towards a more functional perspective on cross-species identities. Future research considering therian belief systems in a holistic and functional way is required.

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1

Theriotypes are “real,” extinct, or extant animals. However, the authors decided to include dragons within this sample given that some individuals with dragon theriotypes identify more closely with “real” animals than mythological animals. Given that what constitutes a therian identity is still being developed within the community, the authors did not feel it appropriate to exclude those dragons who considered themselves to be therians.

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