In this post I am going to rant a little, so please indulge me.
Have you seen the videos of some animals that in nature would otherwise be mortal enemies, or predator and prey, frolicking around or snuggling each other? Some people would point out how it fills our hearts with sheer bliss seeing these creatures so happy and content, far removed from the ghastly carnage of “nature, red in tooth and claw”.
Look, I get it. I’m human. I like cute, warm, snuggly, lovey-dovey stuff too. Watching these videos brings a smile to my face, and I have liked them and shared them on media. However, when I read some of the comments in the threads of these videos, I feel dismayed. In these comments these animals are labelled “pure” and “moral”, and the case is made that we should learn from them to live in harmony with each other. It’s as if this type of animal behavior is proof that love and friendship can overcome everything, and that in the end the lion will lie down with the lamb.
I don’t like to puncture anyone’s bubble, but I am compelled to point out that this is a highly artificial situation. Many of these animals are removed from their natural environment and raised together, and/or they are all well fed and well taken care of. Many of these animals have not had to kill or escape predators to survive, and in fact some of them are the result of generations of selective breeding to make them docile.
Furthermore, in the case of carnivores, what is not shown in the videos is that they are fed meat or meat-based foods. The “ghastly carnage” has already taken place at the slaughterhouse. Countless hapless farm animals have given up the ghost so that these animals could be well nourished and in the mood to be cute, warm, snuggly, and lovey dovey-for the videos. The truth is that, left alone to themselves, the lion and the lamb will NEVER lie down together because lions and other felines like cats are obligatory carnivores. The particular evolutionary processes that gave rise to these animals have made them dependent on nutrients found in meat. In their natural environment, if carnivores don’t eat meat they die. If these nutrients are included in a diet, even a synthetic one, they can survive, but this requires human intervention. And this is what these videos are all about: human intervention.
As humans beings we tend to extrapolate our emotions to animals, and there may even be neurological reasons for why we do this. Nevertheless, while there is ample evidence that many species of animals are not merely robots driven by instinct, and that they display what we would call “emotions”, it has to be understood that it is difficult to establish equivalence between human and animal emotions, or even behaviors for that matter. On a pleasant day we may walk down the street whistling a tune because we feel particularly cheerful, but a bird on a nearby branch may be singing just to attract a mate.
Not content with extrapolating emotions to animals, we also extrapolate our values. Humans are the only species on Earth to have declared that they have inalienable rights, and to have stated that certain behaviors are virtuous and inherently good while others are deplorable and inherently evil. In principle, we should recognize that the world of nature is removed from this convention, but it seems that many people can’t avoid assessing animal behavior in terms of their own values. If the friendship brought about by human intervention on animals that in the wild are predator and prey is “good”, then the natural situation must be on some level inherently “bad”. Therefore, of course, it follows that killing (what predators do) is wrong, and hunters, animal or human, are “bad”.
The extrapolation of human emotions and values to animals reaches its pinnacle in works of fiction where animals are anthropomorphized. One prime example of this is the Walt Disney movie Bambi. Much has been written about the problems with this movie, and many of us who saw it when we were kids have never forgotten the killing of Bambi’s mother by human hunters. Truly, anyone who can commit this atrocious murder for sport is the epitome of evil - except that if deer behaved anywhere near how they are depicted in the movie, in other words: like humans, we would not be killing them!
Humans are predators. If you consume any type of meat, you either kill animals or have others do it for you, and most people would argue that there is nothing wrong with that. It’s what predators do for heaven’s sake! It’s neither good nor bad, it’s natural. We can have discussions about animal rights, about what species should be protected, about how animals should be treated, and so forth, and that is all well and good, but we have to stop viewing animals through the prism of our emotions and our values; especially animals in situations such as the ones featured in internet videos.
In my opinion, the animals in these videos are nothing but a parody of their natural brethren. This is not their normal state. This is not “nature”, and in this sense we cannot learn anything from them. Much in the same way that humans exploit animals for food, clothing, or research, these animals are exploited for their cute, warm, snuggly, lovey-dovey-ness to elicit oohs and aahs (and video likes). Of course, there is nothing wrong with that, but let’s call a spade a spade, can’t we?
The screenshot from the 1942 trailer for Bambi is in the public domain.