What Facebook Kitties are Really About

In my college years, the 1960s, scientists were telling us that animals have no emotions. This struck me as patently ridiculous, but they insisted. As someone much later said, “Don’t any of these guys have dogs?”

Somehow these brilliant scientists seem to have missed out on fundamental brain anatomy. We differ from other animals in that we have a greater cerebral cortex. But the cortex is not the seat of emotions. The “seat of emotions” is found in the Limbic system, one level up from the “reptilian” brain, the brainstem and cerebellum. Obviously, then, a bigger cortex cannot separate our emotions from those of other animals. Hell, even reptiles are easily shown to have emotions. Even fish.

Franz de Waal, in one of his earlier books, relayed a story told to him by Nobel winner Conrad Lorentz, who researched geese in the early 20th century, among other things. A visiting woman read the look on a goose’s face and remarked that she must have had a tough life. Indeed she had. Lorentz explained that she had lost two mates to violence.

It pleases me very much that our understanding of animals has improved greatly since my college years. But still, there are still many who make use of the “rubber ruler”. That is they claim that we differ from “the animals” (somehow neglecting to realize that we are animals ourselves) because “animals can’t do”… and here they mention some specific thing. Then they learn that certain animals can indeed do that certain thing, and so the ruler is stretched and some other thing that animals can’t do is found. But then the process repeats, requiring the ruler to be stretched again. This has been going on for some time but it has become more and more difficult to pretend the idea makes sense. The ruler won’t stretch any more.

This brings us to our favorite source of all wisdom, Facebook. Even though it is now becoming more difficult to winnow out the nonsense, I still like Facebook for all the animal photos and videos, if nothing else.

Recently I saw a photo of a cat embracing the back of his busy human, eyes closed. The love was obvious, as it often is in photos. Remember the huge tiger, all but bowling over his favorite person as he slurps his cheek with that big tongue, eyes closed. Or the baby elephant who came running whenever his fave guy drove up. Or the big owl who was in bliss when his head was scratched. I’ve also in person seen birds who wantonly turn belly-up for a good scratch. Facebook swarms with photos of all kinds of animals, big and small, from all over the animal world, who very obviously love and are loved. They can love their own species, another species, or specifically the human species. Is there any other reason a dog would come to his human’s grave every day for years?

Videos can be priceless because we are amazed, or because they make us laugh. One of my recent favorites showed a smallish rabbit watching a border collie herding sheep. Apparently that seemed interesting enough to try, because the video next showed the rabbit taking a shot at it. To everyone’s great surprise, he was pretty good at herding sheep. I howled at a video of a mischievous dog watching the cat as it stood on the edge of the bathtub, watching it fill. Then the dog pushed the cat in, and in an instant took off running, knowing the cat would be in hot pursuit, which it was, and furious, with laid-back ears and a snarl on its face. Then there’s the one with two dogs seated on the stairs. A woman’s voice demands, “who made this mess?”. Two noses turn in synch to point to a third dog, who immediately looks embarrassed. I come across the video now and then, and laugh every time.

We’ve all seen various parrots do hilarious things, like really get down and dance in perfect rhythm, or make up operatic songs with nonsense lyrics, or be swung around on clotheslines. I saw the wild blackbird “sledding” down a snowy roof on a jar lid. And the magpie stealing clothespins, and hanging on the bottom of the sheet a woman was trying to dry, between the times he was harassing his dog friend.

Hardly a day goes by that there isn’t some really interesting video of an animal doing something we might not have believed if we hadn’t seen it ourselves. There are hundreds of them.

This is why the kitty videos on Facebook are important. Not because kitties are cute, but because they and all the other animal videos show us that we are not nearly so different from animals as we once thought. They do very many of the things we also do, and express sadness, surprise, and pride. Facebook shows us that their emotional lives are virtually identical to ours.

How dare we mistreat an animal when we know we are so close to them, and they are capable of deep love. Cruelty to animals is deeply offensive, and earns hefty jail sentences. And if we dare not mistreat the animal that shares all of our emotions, how dare we mistreat someone of our own species?