Digging around on the Internet and there it is, one of those, again. A turtle returns repeatedly to a ball in order to play with it, as a helpful puppy passes it back to him. Although I quickly get back to my article on the troubling Nazi strains within the current Ukrainian government, disquietude lingers. It is an unease born not of the churning anxiety brought on by my readings on leftwingnutjob.org, but rather of a doubt about relationships that I can’t yet name.
A day later, evening and a laptop are upon me. In a half-baked attempt to disengage from reading numerous idiots’ comment on gas drilling in New York, I return to the fun side of social media and find a video soundlessly playing before me: a kitten has earnestly befriended a lizard on a kitchen floor. Forgetting to lay down the critical apparatus that is easily overstimulated by my screen, I find myself wondering about a growing trend I have noticed in animal videos. It seems an emerging pattern of—
No. Stop! Not everything should be dissected. Not at this time. I make it to bed with an uncluttered mind, or at least one that isn’t attempting to string together unstrung bits. I drift into a wordless sleep. But my blissful nonverbal state is broken by the screeching cries of a coyote tearing apart a raccoon directly outside my window. The growling and gnashing puts words into my mouth, four-letter ones, followed by thoughts on the brutality of survival, followed by a trip to the bathroom, followed by language-based insomnia under a spinning fan.
After awhile, the tearing of flesh just a few yards from my head subsides, leaving plenty of space for the sound of a western cricket in a corner of my room. The cricket rebukes like a loose fan belt, a screechy reminder of entropy overtaking everything mechanical in my life. Endless deferred maintenance scenarios roll out; they dovetail into larger anxieties over things that fall apart, and I am propelled up, out, and onto the computer again. There they are, the cat nursing ducklings, the dog and pigmy goat playing bingo, the chicken and its friend, the grey wolf. Sleep will not come and critical thought will not abate. The time has come to pull apart the message of these interspecies friendships, once and for all.
It wasn’t always like this. There was once a golden age of Golden Books, where animals were expertly illustrated for our serious consideration, or turned into representations of humans to tell us stories, which reflected our follies and gave us insight into our human behavior. There was Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, which taught us that helpful humans sometimes need to shoot darts into animals. And there were stories on Zoom that showed kids and their beloved pets, accompanied by strikingly plain narratives of what they liked to do with their pets. Like walk it. And feed it.
But through all these years of mediated animal experience, I cannot recall seeing the level of insistence upon interspecies friendship among real animals that now exists in dozens of videos on social media. There seems to be an urgent, concentrated attempt to prove that a carnivore no longer desires to devour the small beast in its proximity. These videos aim to create a safe space in the world, a place where predator and prey put aside their age-old grievances and learn the most important thing in the world: how to act like well-behaved humans. There is nothing new about animals being forced to act like humans, as any clip from Lancelot Link will show. But the recent insistence on a peaceable kingdom suggests a desperate need on the part of modern people to prove that maybe, just maybe, the beasts can all just get along. As we do, or wish we did, and do not.
To call these videos infantile would be too generous; if only they simply represented our regressive wish to play with our animal friends. If only they were aspects of some kind of Emersonian animation of the spirit, wherein all of nature reminds us of our connection to the Oversoul. Thoreau got a lot out of observing creatures, but there is no evidence he saw or longed to see a chicken hawk cuddle a garter snake. When Thoreau “was strongly tempted to seize and devour [a woodchuck] raw”, he was not likely to have wondered if the chuck’s playmate, an adorable wild turkey named Sampson, would have come to the rescue before HDT tucked in.
The small screen frames impossible interspecies friendship and diminishes our humanity. Forty-two Mexican students are buried in a mass grave, and the Internet seems to insist that the place to find answers to the question of senseless violence and exploitation is on a poured concrete patio behind a Kaufmann Broad home, where a pug’s encounter with a cougar takes a whimsical turn. Facebook alerts me to both the recent massacres in Guatemala and the antics of three cows and a pesky turkey vulture. But when this insipid bovine-avian camaraderie evokes my ire, and not the blatant disregard for human rights in the Western Highlands, I feel my reasoning falter. I fear for my own sense of proportion. The abuses of pathos are legion, but if we cry over the murder of villagers who got in the way of a gold mine, that sadness could turn toward answers and action. Animal videos turn us toward mush.
It might be tempting to wonder, pointlessly, whether visions of animals normally locked in overcoming their life and death struggles can hint at hope for humanity. Forget it. Interspecies friendship fantasies untether us, setting us adrift in a toxic sea of denial. We cannot see nature, we cannot see each other, and we most certainly cannot see a way out of the unfettered capitalism rapidly destroying all life forms on Earth. We are led to believe it will all be okay, because a weasel and two kittens are eating out of the same bowl.
Martha Atwell is a dormant musician in Los Angeles.