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The irresistible lure of animal videos

The other day my wife Diane and I were having dinner at a restaurant that plays cute animal videos on its television screens while you eat.

In today’s digital age, people are inundated with an ever-growing mass of shared media and animal videos account for a lot of it. If you Google “animal video” you get an incredible 7.6 billion results.

Animal videos are associated with a number of positive features.

For example, cat videos can “boost your energy level, heighten your positive emotions, and decrease negative feelings,” according to researcher Jessica Myrick from Indiana University.

I find videos in which wild animals approach people and ask for their help to be most impressive. Research shows that when domestic dogs or cats are confronted with an impossible problem, they ask humans for help, rather than trying to solve the problem themselves. This has been shown in experiments where food is placed in a container the animal is unable to open. The animal’s looking back and forth from the container to the person is called gaze alternation and is believed to be the way that they request help.

It’s what I do when I can’t find the mustard in the refrigerator.

Animals typically use gaze alteration more often with attentive and generous caretakers than with inattentive ones.

Wildlife storyteller Aline Newman has described several well-known videos of wild animals also asking for help from humans, such as a raven in Nova Scotia, who solicited help from a local resident and allowed her to remove several extremely painful porcupine quills stuck in the bird’s wing and face.

In another case, a mother goose pecked on the door of a police car to ask for aid when her goslings got tangled up in a balloon string. The police were also summoned by a wild deer, who approached their cruiser and stared at the officer inside until be noticed her broken leg.

On a hot Australian day, a thirsty koala asked cyclists for water, while in an African wildlife preserve, a mother giraffe led a guide to help her injured calf. Another such video features a wild fox seeking human help in getting a jar off his head.

Animals with something stuck on their head is a very popular subgenre.

According to psychologist Susan Erich from Idaho’s Earthfire Institute it’s not surprising that wild animals in extreme difficulty approach humans for help. In her experience “this has happened with coyotes, bears, wolves, and cougars.” She believes it reflects a deeper connection with animals than usually occurs and is profoundly moving. Alan McElligott from the University of Roehampton found that wild Australian kangaroos routinely employ gaze alternation with humans, when trying to access food placed inside a secure box. He concluded that gaze alteration was not related to domestication.

Marine biologist Kerstin Voigt from the Corvid Island Bird Sanctuary believes that a wide variety of wild species seek out human assistance when injured or in trouble. She cites the well-known video of a pair of swans, who became entangled and approached a human bystander for help. She says that besides birds, “… marine mammals and fish have also recognized humans as a potential source of help.” She refers to videos of a dolphin and a manta ray, both seeking human help after being ensnared by fishing tackle. She theorizes that these animals are capable of calculating the relative risks and benefits of contact with humans.

After decades in the wild she says, “During our active rescue work we became involved in a number of rescue scenarios, where animals approached humans to ask for assistance.” According to Voigt the number of such encounters may be even higher than estimated, because frequently the help-seeker may be a mother, rather than the injured creature itself.

While animals have some notion about how to ask humans for help, how well do they do when they are asked for emergency assistance?

When I was growing up there were a lot of television shows about heroic animals. Canines were especially prominent, such as Rin Tin Tin, Bullet the Wonder Dog, and of course, Lassie.

At some point in every Lassie episode, Timmy would find himself in terrible trouble, such as falling into an abandoned well. He would say to Lassie. “Get help girl,” and Lassie, would take off to find someone to assist. Usually this required a perilous journey involving things like fighting off wolves or swimming treacherous rivers.

Lassie, however, always knew exactly where to go and how to lead the rescuers back to the well, whereas Timmy was usually on the verge of being eaten by a cougar.

Lassie would arrive just in time to drive the cougar away with a few irritating barks. We ate this stuff up.

In real life, it turns out that such behavior is not very likely.

Our dog, Newman, would get lost just crossing the road or he might decide that he liked the people down the street better than us and not even come home.

One of our cats would disappear for days at a time and it wasn’t until it snowed and we could see his tracks that we figured out that he was going to an older neighbor’s house for a few days of pampering every month.

One Canadian study simulated Lassie scenarios, in which researchers pretended to either have a heart attack or get trapped under a bookcase. Then they attempted to send their dogs for help. In these staged conditions, a potential rescuer was stationed well within the dog’s sight. The dogs never went for assistance and the researchers had to conclude that they “did not understand the nature of the emergency or the need to obtain help.”

My favorite part of this study, however, is how the researchers went out of their way to make excuses for the dogs. They said that the dogs probably knew that the heart attack was a fake. Basically they were saying that the dogs weren’t smart enough to walk across the room and alert the bystander, but they were able to accurately diagnose a myocardial infarction.

Let’s face it, animals may know how to ask for help but they are not so great at giving it. If I have a heart attack, call me a doctor, not a dachshund.

Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., teaches psychology at Ivy Tech Community College and lives in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at tstawar@gmail.com

LOCAL COLUMNIST

Terry Stawar

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