Call of the Wild or Wrong Number?
YouTube has become a goldmine of data for those who study animal and human behavior. Even someone like me whose access to it is highly limited because of a dial-up connection can explore its offerings on occasion. Such was the case when I babysat one of my grandkids and could take advantage of her parents’ fiber-optic connection. Armed with that, I then could access a video clip my son had sent me about an incident involving a captive wild animal, a child, and the child’s parents. Because I’d noticed variations on this same theme when I visited the Boston Aquarium with my grandkids and their moms a while back, the clip got my thoughts going in three directions at once.
Can you guess what those three directions were?
If you guessed animal and human behavior and the bond, you’re correct. Once I saw the first clip, I viewed several others on the same theme and decided they would make a perfect exercise for those interested in behavior and the human animal bond. Voila! The topic of this month’s commentary.
One caveat: Analyzing these videos will take time if you have a dial-up connection that’s as slow as mine. If that’s the case, you may prefer to do this at your local library or some other location with high-speed Internet access like I did.
The exercise consists of three videos that we’ll consider from four different perspectives beginning with the animal behavioral one. To do this, watch each of the following clips with the volume off. This is important because comments by others regarding what they think animals are doing can bias us.
Note: Thanks to the vagaries of technology only the second two clips could be embedded. Because of this you'll have to click on the link to the first one to view it.
What can we say about the behavior of these animals? Do you think it’s normal or abnormal?
I consider it normal for captive animals under these circumstances. Relative to motivation, that’s a tough call. Unfortunately even the most enriched human-made habitat can’t provide the amount and kind of sensory stimulation that these animals’ brains evolved to process and respond to in the wild. Consequently logic says that there will be times when anything novel may attract a captive animal’s attention. When that happens, any result will depend on how much energy the animal is willing and able to put into the process at that time. And how much stimulation the animal receives from the target and/or environment will play a big role in determining that.
Put another way, an animal whose motivation may commence in a more parental or playful mode may become more predatory if the target deliberately or inadvertently feeds the right kind and amount of stimulation into the process. (This is as true for predatory domestic animals such as dogs and cats as it is for wild animals.) The use of dark lighting and glass enclosures not only enhances our view of the wild animals, it also helps keep naïve people from inadvertently or deliberately over-stimulating them.
But while some animals may require little human activity to stimulate them, others may ignore any human activity. No matter how much stimulation those in the darkened environment on the other side of the glass generate in their attempts to attract the animal’s attention, this will have no effect. Presumably this occurs because any benefit the animal gains from doing so isn’t worth the energy required to respond.
Next let’s explore of the human side of these interactions. Watch the 3 videos again, still with the sound off. This time pay attention to the behavior of the children instead of the animal. Specifically, observe how much energy the children put into the process versus any response they receive from their visual environments. Also notice how age may affect the child’s response to the animal.
From this we can see that very young children are essentially oblivious to the animal’s presence under these circumstances. Unlike the animals whose motion-sensitive vision may cause them to zero in on the toddlers, the toddlers’ lack of same causes them to respond the same way they would in any secure environment. This should serve as a reminder to any parent or care-giver of young children that, for as lousy as many of us adults are at reading animal behavior, young children can be a lot worse.
However the older child in the third video displays quite different behavior. As kids get older, they become more ego-centric. This child is as aware of the animal as the animal is of him, but he’s also as clueless regarding animal behavior as the toddlers. The only difference is that he does realize that the animal is aware of and upset by his presence. But rather than feeling any empathy for the creature, he attempts to bait the animal instead of moving away from the window. As far as why he acts that way, the simple answer is that it gets him what he wants using the least amount of energy. As far as what he wants goes, the most probable answer is attention, either from the animal or the people around him.
In all three cases though, I think it’s reasonable to assume that the children act the way they do is because they trust the grown-ups they’re with to protect them. To determine whether this constitutes a sound survival strategy, listen to the clips with the sound on.
Aside from demonstrating different human parental strategies (or lack thereof), the comments some of those filmmakers demonstrates what I think of as the “YouTube 3-Minutes of Fame” phenomenon. Some people become so caught up in the idea of capturing something great on film that they can post of YouTube or send to their friends that they lose sight of what’s actually going on. An extreme example of this is the news report of a man who became so engrossed taking pictures of his wife first interacting with and then getting mauled by some “tame” cheetahs that he keep snapping away instead of helping her!
Although this may sound ludicrous, new technology permits even the most unskilled among us to produce photos and films of fairly decent quality. Additionally, sites like YouTube provide access to an audience far larger than the captive group of family and friends who used to cluster around the photo album or sit through our slide shows.
I also have a theory born of many years as an amateur photographer that photographing or filming an event permits the illusion that we’re somehow outside of it. Such an illusion may support the concept (or illusion) of the photojournalist or scientist as objective and non-biased and even amoral spectator. We get so wrapped up in the composition of the shot or film or thoughts of accolades from those who will see it that we forget what’s actually going on around us.
I have no problems with that when it’s the photographer or filmmaker who pays the price for this selective attentiveness. But when this orientation causes parents to distance themselves from a reality that could harm their children, then to me it crosses the line into the realm of child neglect. And when adults position their younger children in such a way to provoke an animal or allow their older kids to do so for the sake of a good photo or film op, we can add animal abuse to their offenses.
For many children living in western societies, zoos may represent their only chance to see wild creatures from other parts of the world, or those from their own areas whose habitats are threatened or endangered by human encroachment. When we assume the active role of teacher and co-learner instead of that of a passive film-maker, we can teach them far more about animals than any cute videos we adults may want to share with our friends. True, it does require more effort. On the other hand, the future of that wildlife rests with future generations as well as our own. And the more we do to teach kids to respect it, the better.
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