What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Interspecies-friendship photos and videos don’t hurt anybody. But they perpetuate a mistake made by the Nature Fakers more than 100 years ago.

Ben Yagoda
8 min readDec 28, 2016
Photo: imgur.com

Did you catch that video of the fox who was being chased by some dogs, and escaped by jumping on top of a sheep’s back, after which they galloped away together?

It sounds familiar, I know, but it didn’t appear on the National Geographic Channel’s series “Unlikely Animal Friends,” a recent episode of which featured “the adorable story of a green-cheeked conure that befriends a much larger dog, a border collie with an unbreakable bond with a sheep, and a husky and kitten duo that will melt your heart.” Nor is it on “Unbelievable Unlikely Animal Friendships Compilation,” which has had more than 4.9 million YouTube views since it was posted by Animalz TV two years ago.

In fact, you didn’t see it. That’s because, among the tens of thousands of clips showing interspecies chumminess that can be found in every corner of the Internet, this one does not exist. Rather, the episode was described in an 1898 book by Ernest Thompson Seton called Wild Animals I Have Known.

Seton, an American, was one of a school of nature writers of the period who wrote about animals ostensibly from their own point of view and ascribed human qualities to them. Thus the fox, whom he called “Old Vix,” “led the dogs away off down the river, where she shook them off when she thought proper.” Another story in the book referred to a wolf’s “broken-hearted wailing.” There are descriptions of animals tending to their own and each other’s wounds like so many Marcus Welby, M.D.s.

Ernest Thompson Seton

Seton and another like-minded writer, William J. Long, emphasized the way animals supposedly taught their offspring the ways of the world. As someone commented at the time, Seton “constantly aims to convey the idea to his reader that the wild creatures drill and instruct their young, even punishing them at time for disobedience to orders. His imitator, the Rev. Mr. Long, quite outdoes him on this line, going so far as to call his last book the School of the Woods.”

The author of the above quote was the naturalist John Burroughs. For some time he had looked askance at the school and finally, in 1903, had enough. He published an essay in The Atlantic Monthly called “Real and Sham Natural History,” accusing Seton, Long and others as perpetrating “a yellow journalism of the woods.” “No sooner does one of these observers step out of doors,” he noted, “than the wild creatures proceed to get up a theatrical for his especial benefit.”

John Burroughs

Four years later, remarkably, a friend of Burroughs, President Theodore Roosevelt, joined the attack in an essay that applied what would be a lasting epithet to writers of this ilk:

The modern ‘nature faker’ is of course an object of derision to every scientist worthy of the name, to every real lover of the wilderness, to every faunal naturalist, to every true hunter or nature lover.

The Nature Fakers fought back, including some with direct strikes at President Roosevelt, well-known as a hunter. “I find after carefully reading two of his big books,” Long wrote, “that every time he gets near the heart of a wild thing he invariably puts a bullet through it.” He could also have pointed out that Roosevelt, in being the inspiration and namesake of the Teddy Bear (first produced in 1903) was probably the individual bearing the greatest responsibility for the notion that animals are soft, baby-like, and cute.

The fox-riding sheep aside, Nature Fakers were scientific enough not to have gone in very much for the fantasy of animals getting along famously. Historically, that conceit had been more the province of prophets and visionaries. One of the first images that came to the Isaiah’s mind when he contemplated the coming of the Messiah was, “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together.” (D.H. Lawrence’s response: “No absolute is going to make the lion lie down with the lamb unless the lamb is inside.”)

Edward HIcks, “The Peaceable Kingdom” (1826)

The nineteenth century artist Edward Hicks riffed on Isaiah in the many versions of his painting “The Peaceable Kingdom.” A sort of combination visionary and scientist was the Russian biologist Petr Kropotkin, who attempted in his 1914 book Mutual Aid to counter the Darwinian notion of creatures of all kinds warring against each other in a lifelong battle for survival. “The necessity of communicating impressions, of playing, of chattering, or of simply feeling the proximity of other kindred living beings pervades Nature, “ he wrote.

The current craze seems to have been kicked off in 2011, by Jennifer Holland’s bestselling book Unlikely Friendships: 47 Remarkable Stories from the Animal Kingdom, the cover of which shows a monkey apparently hugging a seagull. The book inspired numerous sequels, an annual calendar, and, crucially, Budweiser’s 2014 Super Bowl commercial featuring the unlikely friendship of a Clydesdale and a dog. The video — which on a number of metrics was rated the most successful commercial of the game and set the pattern for subsequent Facebook and YouTube videos — checks all the boxes: heart-tugging musical track (“Let Her Go,” by Passenger); camera work that confects longing, playfulness, determination and other “emotions” on the puppy’s face; and kind and impossibly good-looking human overseers.

That a puppy co-stars is also significant. Of the thirteen clips in the “Unbelievably Unlikely Animal Friendships” YouTube video, seven feature dogs and three of the rest have cats. Those domestic animals have well-known capacities for a version of play, for sociability, and for reading the emotions of members of other species (usually humans). In these videos, the horses, the chicks, the owls are malleable straight men, their impassivity reading as patience or fondness, their shaking their head so as to make a dog quit nuzzling them as good-natured exasperation.

To what extent do these scenarios represent reality? It has long been known that infants of many species will bond with or “imprint” on whatever creature happens to be around. And there is some documented inter-species collaborations on projects of mutual interest. A Swiss researcher has found that that grouper and moray eels join forces in hunting other fish. Zebra and wildebeest work together to assist in long-distance migration.

But it’s a long way from that to the idea that animals can or do actually develop friendships in anything like the human manner. Erica Goode of the New York Times surveyed scientists on the question and got conflicting answers. One biologist pointed to examples of animals raised together from a young age, who show an attachment to each other for some time after birth. Another, Clive Wynne, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University, told Goode that all the videos he’d seen take place

in a human-controlled environment…. To me, that’s what kind of removes what would otherwise be interesting. Because it ceases to be directly a story about animal behavior and becomes a story about human impact on the environment, like the difference between gardening and the beauty of natural landscape.

If your heart isn’t as cold as a flagpole on a winter’s day, you understand the appeal of these videos. In a harsh time for humankind, they offer a few minutes respite, and an implicit hope that maybe, one day, we can all get along. Last summer, TV satirist John Oliver tried to offer some solace in a brutal presidential year by making three endorsements, one of which was “interspecies friendships.” (The others were “animals wearing people clothes” and “Gingham shirts with ties that you wouldn’t think go, but somehow kinda go.”)

The problem is that, as with the Nature Fakers of yore, rather too much is being claimed. “Unlikely Animal Friends”’s website announces: “These unexpected friends defy the laws of nature and demonstrate an evolution in the animal kingdom that would astound Darwin himself.” Jennifer Holland, author of the Unlikely series of books, is a respected science writer, but even she, in the latest installment, brings the Nature Fakers to mind with such similes as the owl and dog who spend time “cozying up like sweethearts, revealing that unique closeness and trust.” These are just some of the words Holland uses in relation to animals: uninterested, devotion, love, happy, sweet, grumpy, tease, gleeful, mournful, relieved, patience, smitten, and confidence.

The whole animal-friendship cosmos bring to mind J.D. Salinger’s character Seymour and his definition of sentimentality: “to give a thing more tenderness than God gives to it.”

Animal-friendship videos don’t hurt anyone. But casting animals in human terms is a limited and limiting notion, and distracts us from a more interesting and difficult subject: what animals are like on their own terms. A prominent member of the generation of naturalists after the Nature Fakers, Henry Beston, got at this in a passage from his 1928 book, The Outermost House:

We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion.… For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they moved finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.



Ben Yagoda

Author, "The B Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song. " www.benyagoda.com. Linktree https://linktr.ee/benyagoda