So that lamb prancing down the road with a look of unrestrained glee on its face -- pretty adorable, right? Sure, if you ignore that, in reality, the lamb is probably scared out of its wits and running for dear life.
And similarly, this cockatoo is probably not really an ACDC fan but just vehemently wants the heavy metal music to go away, though it does make a great party trick for the owner. And does this hyper owl really want to be your friend, or does she just want you to get out of her face?
That’s the problem with LOLcats and the cute animal pics that crowd Pinterest, Tumblr, and the Huffington Post (not to mention OnEarth’s own “Eco Porn” series) -- the animals in those pictures may very well be terrified. The sign of a truly content animal is often vacant calmness, which doesn’t always make for exciting photographs. When animals are worked up or scared is when they tend to physically react, giving us perceived grins that are more often grimaces and wide eyes that are frightened, if adorable.
When humans bare their teeth, for example, it’s usually a smile. For other mammals, it’s a threat response or a sign of aggression.
And remember that ACDC-loving cockatoo? Sure, his fluffed-feathers may suggest a sweet ‘80s mullet to us, but other parrots would see them as a signal of irritation. And when many animals are stressed, they just give up and play dead, like this meerkat’s friend. That grin looks a little more gruesome now, doesn’t it?
But we lap it up. We love it. We share it with our friends. Which leads to the question: when you smile at that “smiling” seal or giggle at an overhyped dog, are you guilty of enjoying animal cruelty?
Nah, you’re just a typical human, says cognitive psychologist Diana Reiss, who teaches at Hunter College in New York and studies dolphin intelligence. Humans often misinterpret dolphins' normal or slightly agitated expressions as smiles, Reiss noted. “We almost can’t help ourselves,” she told me -- there’s an inherent human tendency to anthropomorphize almost everything that exists in the world around us, including the pics we see online. Humans are great at pattern recognition, so when we see something that we recognize, we ascribe human attributes to it, regardless of the actual situation. “If you just see a picture of a pig that’s looking really happy, it may not be happy to the pig, but you see it as happy because that’s all you know.”
Even animal experts have a hard time interpreting non-human emotion, especially when they only have a single photograph to guide them, says Jaak Panksepp, a psychologist and psychobiologist at Washington State University. (Panksepp is famous for showing that rats can laugh.)
So do I have a moral obligation to stop clicking on cute baby bird photos and refrain from “liking” baby hippos? Reiss doesn’t think so -- as long as the animals in the pics aren’t abused to provoke a certain reaction, it’s a pretty harmless online hobby.
On that note, did this dog really need to go down this slide?
But if eco porn encourages people to form a stronger bond with the animals they enjoy on Facebook, it might even translate into increased willingness to protect the natural world. Just remember: