What Does Duolingo’s Heartwarming Portrayal of Animals Suggest About the Future of Humanity?

Will we finally live up to the cuteness of family-friendly animal stories?

Phoenix Huber
Apr 28 · 5 min read
A friendly green owl named Duo serves as the Duolingo mascot. Photo by Andy Chilton on Unsplash.

When Criminal Minds was on yesterday, JJ asked Reid what he would do if he wasn’t an FBI agent. He gave the surprising answer he’d be a cowboy—surrounded by nature with horses and a few cattle.

“And what would you do with cattle?” JJ asks, incredulous.

“Oh, you know, look at ’em. Pet ’em. I hadn’t really though about that but I’ll figure it out.” (Scene link here for Criminal Minds fans.)

Reid describes how the other agents would also be there. JJ would run a flower shop, Rossi a saloon, and Garcia would have a sanctuary for wounded animals.

I found this interesting, because traditionally a cowboy would also do some violent things to cows. Castration, branding, and throat-slitting come to mind. However, it’s more picturesque for the cattle to just be there, our relationship with them purely peaceful and affectionate—like how we usually relate to dogs. Meanwhile, Garcia’s sanctuary for wounded animals makes for a much more pleasant daydream than, say, a slaughterhouse. (Perhaps one of the serial killers in the show could run one of those.)

This sweet JJ & Reid scene is just one example of what I commonly notice. Many popular stories prefer to portray relationships with animals that are gentle and heartwarming. They avoid direct portrayal of our more violent transactions with animals.

Duolingo, the top app for language learning, has some content like this in its stories. Here’s what I fondly remember from my Spanish practice.

A starving girl, too kind to kill a deer, is rewarded for her mercy

Suddenly, the deer returns and reveals he was actually some hunter god in disguise, testing her. He tells the two cranky sisters to promise they’ll be nice to the third sister. Then, lots of meat and fruit magically appear.

It is very understandable to kill to survive. Alas, the story portrays mercy as admirable, even when you yourself are in a dire situation.

And the meat shows up on its own, without a kill. It’s kind of like the goal of cultivated meat, grown from cells.

Some good guys save elephants from poachers

Interesting because the elephant hunt is only illegal for environmental reasons. Yet, when folks hear of endangered animals it may activate their tendency to care about the individual too. Even if we might learn to turn off that caring in other situations where the violence is normalized or deemed necessary.

A painter makes amends with animals who are upset with humans

The gorilla judge wants to put Margarita in jail. A wolf steps in and defends her. Eventually, the animals realize Margarita is the human in their legend—and she only left their world in chaos by accident when she failed to finish the mural. The animals let her finish. Abruptly, she’s back in her room, admiring the completed painting of forest animals in harmony.

The painter’s dream can be taken at face value, but it also speaks to human remorse. Many of us feel this when we think of the scale of habitat destruction, factory farming, and other issues. We humans are the ones in power, though. This makes our misgivings easy to forget. When Margarita is taken hostage by animals, the roles are temporarily reversed. It triggers reflection.

Vegans sometimes make this point by invoking “the alien analogy.” What if tech-savvy beings from another planet claimed dominion over humankind? Would their might make right? We could only hope they would recognize us as fellow sentient beings. That they’d strive to treat us with nonviolence and respect. Helping us, if anything, but not hurting us for their own gain. Yes, we would hope they’d treat us better than we have treated animals.

I guess part of why we cherish sensitivity to animals in our stories is how vulnerable they are. Their species don’t have technology to make them safer from the harsher sides of nature. Animals are conscious and brim with emotion, but lack our degree of self-awareness. They are like infants we want to hold and keep safe.

When I see mainstream evidence of our sensitivity to animals, I contrast this with the industries that breed them just to raise them in unfit conditions, do painful procedures, and kill. I contrast our widespread opposition to the idea of animal cruelty, with how veganism still seems radical.

Despite our resistance to changing what’s comfortable, I see vegans and reducetarians at heart all around me. We not only wish our lifestyles were harmless if they magically could be, but we even fantasize the woodland creatures would all be happy.

Some futurists like David Pearce theorize we will not only end human abuse of animals but change what wild animals endure. While nature is often seen as harmony on an ecological level, the lived experiences of animals often look more like tragedy and chaos. Countless die in infancy, are eaten alive by predators, or torn apart by rivals. They starve, get parasitic infections, or die other terrible ways. Just as we are making life more humane for humans, dogs, and cats, we may do the same for other species once knowledge and tech reach that point.

However, Pearce himself suggests doing away with factory farms and slaughterhouses as a top priority of those who care for animals. “Until humans stop paying for the industrialised abuse of other sentient beings, the idea of compassionate stewardship of Nature is probably fanciful.”

Maybe just like in Margarita’s mural in the Duolingo story, the animals really will live together in harmony. And it will humans—their former abusers—who redeem ourselves and finish the painting.


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