The human brain has a great deal of real estate devoted to the tasks of recognizing faces and recognizing emotions in those faces. Neither of these tasks is foolproof: seeing faces where they are none is the most common form of pareidolia and has whole religions devoted to it, and prosopagnosia and difficulty reading emotions in faces are both common difficulties associated with autism. One of the most common malfunctions of this facial recognition module is treating animals as though their facial expressions and other behavioral signifiers mean the same things as ours. It’s from here that we eventually get snarling velociraptors in modern creature features.
A great deal of cruelty is had when people refuse to read animals for what they are saying, and instead read what they think ought to be there.
Dogs and cats are the two most common pet species on the planet. Both have been domesticated for such a commanding fraction of humankind’s history that their behavior is, compared to their wild cousins, overwhelmingly optimized for interacting with humans. Both are, however, still not humans, and so do not emote in ways that are immediately intuitive for humans.
One important lesson is that even the most affectionate dogs and cats often do not enjoy being hugged or otherwise confined, nor do they enjoy being kissed. These are primate gestures of affection, and these interactions register for dogs and cats as competitive or hostile. Photographs of dogs being hugged or kissed are often filled with canine signs of distress—folded ears, looking away from the hugger, whites of eyes showing. A human sufficiently insistent on ignoring or misreading these signals may make the dog feel cornered enough to react more aggressively, seemingly “unprovoked.” Cats are, contrary to common assumptions, rather less subtle with their discontent, and might try to squirm away or use their claws to dissuade unwelcome handlers. Generations of pop culture using cats as villains and slapstick gags have helped people recognize their defensive displays as such, where dogs are often denied. In both cases, the animal is asserting its boundaries, and is not dangerous to humans prepared to respect those boundaries.
Cats present another, less well-known source of confusion. Popular culture attributes the cat’s purr to contentment, but astute pet owners observe their cats purring in times of stress, poor health, or while demanding petting, all situations ill described by “contentment.” Purring is almost certainly a multi-function behavior in cats, and most commonly, that behavior is asking for attention. A purring cat may desire that her nerves be soothed, that her physiological ills be cured, for someone to scratch that one spot on her forehead that she can’t easily reach, or, most obviously, for someone giving her attention to keep on doing what they’re doing.
Rabbits have their own, particularly notable area of concern. Rabbits can enter a state of “trance” or tonic immobility when placed on their backs, which some pet owners use to quickly clip their nails, examine their orifices, or bathe them. In this state, the rabbit offers none of its usual resistance to these activities, but it is not content. Though unresponsive and therefore offering no other outward signs of distress, rabbits in tonic immobility show elevated heart rates and other physiological signs of stress or fear. Some hop away in a panic the moment they are released from the trance. Making use of tonic immobility as part of maintenance or healthcare is a trade-off between the stress associated with tonic immobility versus the stress of trying to clip the rabbit’s nails or check its body for illness while it is responsive and actively resisting. Either way, those videos of rabbits on their backs in sinks full of soapy water are not feeling imperious and relaxed, and that’s not even accounting for how soapy baths are very dangerous for rabbit health.
A particular class of meme deserves additional attention in this context. Usually featuring a less familiar, wild animal, such as a tamandua or a goanna, these images attribute a sequence of human thoughts, comments, or sentiments to the animal and rely on the similarity between the animal’s depicted behavior and some human pattern for their humor value. Without a little knowledge of animal behavior, it is easy to assume that the humor is in assigning speech or language to the animals, and not in how the text in question rarely resembles the animals’ actual emotional state.
Some salient examples:
This turtle is not smiling:
Turtles, like all reptiles (including birds), do not have lips and cannot smile, nor do they have eyebrows or the other engines of mammalian facial expressions. Turtles can open or close their mouths and/or eyes and inflate or deflate their throats, and this is the limit of their facial expressions. An open mouth means a turtle is overheating, eating, threatening to bite an overzealous finger or hunting bird, or copulating. Happy turtles have bright, visible eyes and…that’s pretty much it. Turtles inflate their throats as part of territorial or defensive displays, to look larger, as well.
Many animals have visually striking territorial or hierarchical displays, used to stake out home ranges or put rivals in their place. Because these are highly ritualized and, often, result in no direct bodily harm to either participant, they are easy to re-narrate as other kinds of interactions.
These monitor lizards are not happy to see each other. They are fighting over territory. If a loser doesn’t emerge relatively quickly and then flee the area, they will resort to bites that leave noticeable, bleeding wounds until one of them decides this is no longer worth the trouble and the other gets to keep this prime basking rock.
These “kissing” gouramis are, likewise, not pleased to have each other’s company. Like all anabantoid fish, they are highly territorial. Their ritualized “kissing” behavior, however charming, is the same kind of thing as the vicious battles that bettas fight with one another, and causes stress for the lower-ranking fish when it cannot flee outside the range claimed by the winner. If it helps, imagine them as sarcastic fringeheads instead.
Perhaps the worst offenders are images like this mantis:
And this crab:
And this tamandua:
And this porcupinefish:
And this loris:
These animals are all in states of abject terror. These displays are how these animals attempt to fend off would-be predators or aggressors, attempting to look larger and more aggressive than they are once they are trapped and cannot instead run away. Their cuteness or charm is an accident of how humans view similar gestures and facial features on humans, not a property of the animals themselves. Exhibiting these behaviors is a sign that these animals fear for their lives. This fear outlasts the initial stimulus and, like any other flash of profound stress, leaves the animal physiologically weakened and less resistant to disease for weeks or months thereafter. Many of the subjects of images like these are, additionally, animals that have been maimed so that they behave themselves in captivity—pet lorises have almost all had their canine teeth removed to protect their owners from their venomous bites, at the cost of their ability to eat normally, and rarely survive long in ordinary people’s homes.
Recognizing something familiar in an animal’s behavior is part of being an empathic being, and it is not a flaw in humanity that humans see so much of themselves in other creatures. Where this goes wrong is where it forgets that other animals are not humans, and therefore their capacity for universal sentiments like fear and contentment appears through an altogether unfamiliar lens. Recognizing the emotions these animals are actually broadcasting brings us closer to them and keeps us from taking delight in their suffering.
We owe the world’s animals, and the neurodivergent people whose differences from a perceived norm likewise have us so mistreated on a regular basis, at least that much.
Now this makes me wonder… there are so many memes of dogs and sometimes other animals smiling. I was going through a Pinterest board and there were memes like a dog in a car getting “excited” about Pet Smart, and then seeming disappointed when they passed it, and then be contented with heated seats. There’s another one of different dogs smiling, and of people trying to match their dogs’ facial expressions.
So what does this mean for those kinds of memes?
And what about Doge, and the meme of the bad pun husky, etc?
Alert curiosity can look like overt happiness in dogs and cats. I suspect many of these memes feature dogs that aren’t feeling the emotions described by their text, but relatively few of the ones I’ve come across feature scared or sad dogs. Dogs aren’t quite my area of expertise, though; there are much more informed dog readers out there 🙂