Thanks to modern technology, peering into private lives all around the world has never been easier.
When Su Lin, the San Diego-born daughter of Chinese parents Bai Yun and Gao Gao, had her first medical exam, eager viewers proclaimed that she was the cutest baby ever. When a mother of three died in an airplane accident, leaving the father to care for the family alone, thousands of people across the country mourned online. As a youngster at New York University got close to takeoff, his family’s Facebook wall was crammed with notes from well-wishers.
Did I mention that all of these are animals? The Chinese American family of pandas has graced the San Diego Zoo for many years; the plane incident involved eagles in Norfolk, Va.; and the near-fledgling is a red-tailed hawk that hatched this spring on a ledge outside the office of NYU’s president.
From amateur setups near backyard bird nests to elaborate video systems chronicling the daily activities of sharks and polar bears, live webcams of animals show us birth, romance, skullduggery and death — animals behaving like animals 24/7. Birds of prey such as hawks and eagles are particularly popular, but with a little searching, you can watch the day-to-day goings-on of squirrels, meerkats, bears and even chickens. (For you doubters out there, chickens lead lives of endless drama and amusement. Trust me.).
The appeal is obvious, even aside from the benefit of being able to watch live sex acts without fear that a search of your browser history will reveal any embarrassing secrets (members of Congress, take note!). The cams are a window into aspects of animal lives we would never otherwise see, our own private “Animal Planet.” Animal cams are voyeurism without guilt, intimacy without the invasion of privacy. And those lives don’t lose any intrigue for not being human; part of why I became a biologist is that fascination with beings that seem both exactly like us and a universe apart. The cams let the rest of the world, the non-scientists, in on the fun.
Yet it’s that quality of animals appearing to be just like us that makes me want to drop a cautionary pebble into the live video stream. The comments on webcam sites are rife with anthropomorphism, not surprisingly, and even when this is pointed out, the contributors are often undaunted.
After the mother eagle was killed in Virginia, emotions ran high; one faithful follower declared: “Anthropomorphization [sic], hell. Eagles wouldn’t form long-term bonds and carry on like this without the exact same sorts of emotions that drive us to do that sort of thing.” When skeptics scoffed, other posters were quick to come to the first commentator’s defense: “Of course animals feel emotion, and this male eagle will be feeling just as bad in an eagly [sic] kind of way as a person would.”
I am filled with admiration for the coiner of the adjective “eagly,” and I applaud the kinship with other organisms that many viewers of animal cams feel. But there is a danger in claiming such kinship too insistently. Appearances aside, animals are not just like us, any more than they are all like each other. Rabbits have different lives than bluebirds, and we should expect neither to replicate our own. How can we know what animals feel? The fact is that we can’t. We can look at animal brains, and we can observe their behavior, but their inner lives are mysterious.
If we convince ourselves that animals reflect our own feelings — nothing more, nothing less — we are cheated of discovering what other species are really like, and we run the risk of homogenizing them into one giant beastly human reflection. What’s more, we often impose our biases on animals, assuming that what we see is what humans do.
And then we miss things.
If we assume animal pairs are always monogamous, or always philandering, we might not figure out why some species are faithful to their mates and others have multiple partners. Animals do both, and keeping our own prejudices out of it is essential if we want to understand their behavior.
If we think many children bring joy and richness to a family, we might not be able to understand the way nature allows some species, like egrets, to produce more eggs than they will ever rear, letting vicious sibling rivalry sort out the victor.
We might even start taking sides. We might want to intervene if a cowbird (whose M.O. is taking advantage of the parenting effort of other species) tosses out an egg from a warbler’s nest and replaces it with her own, just because the warbler has become the main character in our backyard drama.
Finally, there is a problem of where to draw the line. Do we extend our bond from eagles and owls, pandas and puppies to snakes? To jellyfish? To bacteria? Most people have little difficulty in seeing their feelings mirrored by mammals, or larger birds, but what about the rest of the finned, scaled and feathered?
One of the reasons I like studying insects is that it is difficult to see them, with their unwavering stares and robotic movements, as tiny people. Yet they have complex and wonderful social lives, despite their alien appearance, and I relish the chance to lay aside my prejudices, discover non-human realities and appreciate bugs for what they are. Insect webcams are not so popular, but a few exist, including one of Madagascar hissing cockroaches. They are great parents. But I bet no one captured a screen shot and sent it to mom for Mother’s Day.
Marlene Zuk is professor of biology at UC Riverside. Her latest book, “Sex on Six Legs: Lessons on Life, Love, and Language from the Insect World,” will be published in August.