The kangaroo photo – taken in River Heads, Queensland – that received widespread press coverage. Photograph: Evan Switzer
It was a photograph that touched the world. An intimate portrait of a dying mother kangaroo being gently cradled by her mate, while with her last breath she reached out to caress her innocent baby.
Yet, as it turns out, that is not what the photo shows at all. As an Australian expert swiftly pointed out, rather than protecting the female, the male appears to be trying to mate with her, holding her close to fend off any rivals. Indeed, his unwanted attentions may even have led to her death.
What did you see here? Evidence that wild creatures are capable of empathy – that, just like us, they do have feelings? Or the exact opposite: that animals will exploit any situation for their sexual gratification, in what is no more than a vicious act of rape?
Both of these interpretations reveal far more about us than about the kangaroos. The extensive press coverage, and the accompanying comments criticising scientists for explaining what was really going on, are classic examples of the way we want wild creatures to be like us – a fallacy known as anthropomorphism.
It is, of course, perfectly natural to expect the rest of the animal kingdom to share the same ways of thinking and feeling about the world as we do. Since human beings first observed their fellow creatures we have endowed them with our own emotions – and we continue to do so today.
So dolphins have a permanent smile on their faces. Dogs look friendly, while cats appear haughty and aloof. And baby animals are always cute. That’s something Walt Disney realised when he turned the originally rat-like Mickey Mouse into a far more appealing character – simply by making its head and eyes larger, and therefore more childlike.
Literature is full of examples of anthropomorphism, especially in children’s stories, from The Wind in the Willows to Watership Down. George Orwell knew just how powerful this could be, hence his use of animal characters for satirical purposes in Animal Farm.
Nature writers, however, avoid anthropomorphism like the proverbial plague. Indeed, during the second half of the 20th century the genre of nature writing virtually disappeared, as its proponents were so cowed by the dominance of objective science that they dared not write about wild creatures at all, for fear of being accused of giving them human traits.
Wildlife filmmakers face a different issue. By focusing on the apparently human aspects of animals – proud lions, pitiless sharks and cute koala bears – they win large audiences. But at the same time they risk losing credibility among a minority of viewers, who regard this approach as superficial and inaccurate.
This has two important consequences. The first is that those creatures that remind us of ourselves – either in a positive way, like bears, or negatively, like sharks – gain disproportionate screen time, at the expense of equally important but less appealing species such as insects. It also means that the real complexities of animal behaviour are often over-simplified to the point of inaccuracy.
A recent commendable attempt to redress the balance, BBC1’s The Hunt, showed a far more accurate and nuanced picture of the relationship between predators and their prey than we are normally given. Predictably, along with justified praise for a stunning series came a slew of complaints from parents whose children were upset at seeing animals being killed.
But even when we know the truth, this does not stop us from continuing to impute human feelings and emotions to animals – as the continuing debate over that kangaroo picture reveals. Ironically, this capacity for anthropomorphism may be one of the things that, ultimately, make us human.