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Watching animals on the screen reveals more about ourselves

June 13, 2011 | 11:40 am


It would be nearly impossible not to awwww your way through animal videos that suggest love stories between, say, an orangutan and a hound, or a dolphin and dog. And then there’s Animal Planet’s “Meerkat Manor,” which hooks viewers with a narrative story line that could just as easily fit in with Bravo’s “Real Housewives” franchise down to its saucy tagline: “Don’t judge. Just watch.” But do these snippets of animal life say more about us, the viewer, than the animals themselves? That’s what Marlene Zuk, professor of biology at UC Riverside, argues in an Op-Ed article from Sunday’s pages:

Animal-Cams 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. […]

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.

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 --Alexandra Le Tellier

Illustration: Joe Kimmel / For The Times

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