Living tools

Why do we get such pleasure from contrived scenes of animals “acting human”?

If you saw the video week before last of the bicycle race at the Shanghai Wild Animal Park, in which a bear and two monkeys are made to pedal around a track against the screaming and laughter of a packed stand of onlookers, maybe you wondered, as I did, what exactly you were looking at. It is the events of the second half of the clip, starting around 0'43", in which the bear crashes into one of the monkeys and proceeds to maul it while handlers beat at it with sticks and attempt to pry it off, that attracted the attention of news outlets and prompted petitions for the park’s closure. But the real obscenity lies in the race itself.

The bear is good. So are the monkeys. The handlers are not pushing them, not even helping them balance. These animals really know how to pedal a bike. Imagine what goes on during training. Imagine the effort involved in getting animals anatomically and cognitively ill-adapted to bipedal locomotion not just to move bipedally but to transform rotational into translational movement as we do when we pedal. If it’s too long since you learned to ride a bike to remember, think about the first time you balanced on one foot in a yoga class. Think about how energetically expensive it is to internalize new locomotor programs. Think about how frustrating it can be. Now imagine you had people standing over you with crops, screaming at you in a language you could not understand, forcing you to do it over and over again. Imagine you had no context—say you’d been drugged, and woke up with amnesia in an environment where your welfare depended on mastering, and then performing before large crowds, this completely unnatural motor activity.

Locomotion is a matter not just of skeletomusculature but of a repertoire of central nervous motor programs linking trunk, limbs,extremities, neck, and eyes in precisely timed rhythmic cascades, together with a capacity to adjust one’s movements to information coming in from the environment. This capacity for sensorimotor responsiveness is itself organized in repertoires. Think about what happens when you step on a stopped escalator, even when you’re aware it’s stopped before you step on. That half-second it takes you to switch locomotor programs reflects the years you’ve spent becoming acculturated to the demands of bipedal locomotion in a world that includes escalators. Even the way we adjust our necks to smooth out the judder in the flow of optical data to our eyes when we walk or run requires practice. It also requires an anatomical and central nervous preparedness for holding the head up during locomotion, along with the capacity to entrain our movements to the relatively high tempo of walking (cycling, etc)—above 120bpm—capacities other animals lack.

This is the point of the Shanghai Wild Animal Park bike race, which, apparently, is the sort of show the Park has been putting on for years.What makes it titillating for the audience is their awareness that—ha ha—monkeys and bears can’t ride bikes! Look at them try! The animals’ discomfort is the main attraction.

Why should this be? Why should we get such pleasure from observing other sentient creatures in distress? Or, to frame the question more broadly, where do we get off using other creatures for amusement? My roommate at the moment keeps a Maine coon in our fourth-floor apartment. This 17-month-old, 10kg animal is in a continual state of distress. He attacks the other cat. He whines pitifully to be let out to prowl the stairwell. He sits on the kitchen windowsill, pawing at the netting she’s stretched across the window to allow the cats to get some fresh air without falling out. He is bored out of his skull, frustrated, confused, borderline sociopathic. I admit, I am not always as compassionate with him as I should be. He can be a little shit.

When my roommate’s last cat died, she decided she wanted a really hardy cat, one that, erm, would not die? It was made clear to her a fourth-floor apartment with no garden access was an inappropriate environment for a Maine coon. She put her own gratification—she does take a lot of pleasure in this cat—ahead of the animal’s well-being. This is not the same thing as forcing bears and monkeys to ride bicycles before a screaming crowd, but it’s a difference of degree, not of kind.

I’m certainly not immune to this kind of thing myself. When the therapy alpacas come out to play, I’m the first one there with a dish of beetroot pellets, hoping for the chance to stroke their long, woolly necks.The fact that alpacas prefer to limit close contact even among themselves just makes them more desirable as objects of affection. We crave empathy, kinesthetic empathy, the feeling of moving with other moving things.We need contact with other warm, moving bodies like we need food, water, sleep, and to move ourselves. When our affection for another—person or animal—is rejected, it can quickly curdle into a desire to overmaster and humiliate.

The anthropologist Pat Shipman has called domesticated animals “living tools”, and there is something to this. We use other animals as extensions of the motor and metabolic faculties of our own unadorned bodies. It is also worth considering, as the anthropologist Helen Leach has argued, that domestication represents a kind of adaptive choreography whose physiological and cultural effects—neoteny, sedentism—extend to humans as well as other animals. Still, there is a gradient of intentionality in the domestication encounter, and that gradient tracks the actors’ different capacities for self-reflection and chronesthesis—mental time travel. We are aware of what we are doing, we can imagine distant outcomes on the basis of past experiences, in ways other animals cannot.

And while we cannot know, experientially, what it is like to be another person, let alone another kind of being, we are exquisitely good perspective-takers. We can imagine what it would be like to be in a position of disadvantage. We can resent other animals just as we resent those people we call tools, resent their intransigence, their ignorance, what we take to be their freedom from the stressors of our own lives. We can—we do—develop a warped need to toy with them.