Five minutes of film

He wasn’t feeling too good so I carried his breakfast through into the lounge where he was watching TV and sat down with him on the sofa for five minutes. He was watching a wildlife programme and, as the small polar bear weakened and failed through starvation, I watched through a veil of tears. My own son beside me, it was easy to recognise the encouragement in the way the ursine mother tried to raise her cub to his feet. That was bad enough. Realising the little one could no longer stand she and his twin snuggled up with the dying cub, sharing warmth and comfort; nuzzling him gently and curled around the little body. Just waiting until the end. I can’t even write it without tears.

There was the debate about how the camera crew could simply stand by and watch, filming the tragedy, but the general policy is that they do not interfere, only observe the natural unfolding of life and death in the wild. To have provided food, had any been available out there in the snowy wastes, would have inevitably meant the taking of one life to sustain another, and while it might be argued that some species face less of a threat of extinction than others, Nature has her ways and it might only have been a postponement rather than a salvation if the young cub was weak.

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I do not, for one minute, think that the cameraman watched without an ache in his heart, having followed and filmed the bears for so long. You could feel the human emotion in the delicacy of his touch as he filmed those final moments, capturing the body language of maternal grief that seems to carry universal understanding. It was so gently done that it is one of those sequences I shall not forget.

The next sequence of the film showed a seal pup washed away from the herd in a storm and the determination with which its mother and aunt searched for her…. And the very obvious joy and welcome all round when they found her. Sequences like these highlight how closely the threads of life are bound together and could teach us of our similarities with other species, rather than our differences.

It is very easy to say that we project human emotions onto animals and believe them to feel in the self-same way that we do, arguing that this is a human trait and we understand the world only when we see it through our own peculiar lens. This may be true, if a little simplistic; we can only see through our own eyes after all and at least the projection argues some attempt at understanding. .

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With domestic animals I have a feeling some of those humanly recognisable behaviours are learned as a form of interspecies communication. Ani, for example, certainly makes herself understood. The vocal signals we call language… the words my dog understands… may indeed be reduced by science to mere association of audible cues. But her own body language, eyes and expressions speak volumes, as do the range of vocal signals she expects me to respond to. I don’t think anyone who has ever shared a home with a dog would argue that communication happens. Just not on our normal terms.

The social structures and imperatives of one species may seem alien to another, and there can be no doubt some of the protective instincts of motherhood are attributable to the simple necessity for ensuring survival. Even so, I wept for the grief of the mother bear. We may well project human emotion onto other species, but this does not mean that they have no emotions of their own. Somehow, we still tend to see ourselves as separate from the animal kingdom. I suppose it is the difference between compassion for another’s emotions and feeling with them. While we are separate from other species, we cannot empathise, only look on with sympathy. But why not empathy, after all? Humans are animals too and if a human mother feels grief at the loss of a child, why not a bear?

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There are many well documented examples of grieving in the animal kingdom, particularly for the loss of mates and young. Stuart and I, walking back one night through the darkened city, watched a fox, desperately trying to get its mate to get back on its feet… but it had been hit by a car and was beyond help. To attribute grief might well be deemed projection, but not if you were there and saw the foxes. I also watched a sad farewell when a pigeon’s mate had died… and understood the grief. There are also many examples all over the internet of the strange inter-species friendships that develop; pictures of unlikely pairings where you cannot help but smile at the images, even though many of the stories attached to them hold the darker shadow of orphaned creatures.

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Those of us who live with animals undoubtedly read more into their expressions than behaviourists would allow. But I wonder if calling our understanding of animal emotions ‘projection’ is simply our way of continuing to distance ourselves from the creatures around us? We do not wish to see ourselves as animals and have historically taken the position that they are somehow ‘less’ than humans, particularly as their behaviour is learned, conditioned… not an emotional response from which they can learn… a least, not as we would understand it. Yet, is not our own idea of ourselves formed in the same way? Over the past few decades, much work has been done to establish whether or not animals are more than the organic machines science posited for centuries; do they have emotions and do they have anything we can accept as consciousness? To anyone who has lived with animals, this seems a little late in coming. Science, however, requires that proof be demonstrable, repeatable and conclusive in scientific terms before it admits to anything. Consciousness itself is still ill-defined and yet a number of animals have passed the tests designed to demonstrate self-awareness, while dogs have been shown to have an emotional range similar to that of a human child. It may be that we are not so very different after all.

To feel empathy for a mother bear or a bereaved fox is not projection, in my eyes. It is a simple recognition of fellow-feeling.

As I was researching this article, I watched again the short video of how the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone dramatically altered both ecology and landscape as the natural balance of predator and prey was re-established. Another thing I saw posted was the endangered species list, populated by some of our most beloved wild creatures… as well as top predators whose presence in the ecological chain affect the balance of nature in ways we are only just learning to understand. We share this planet with an unknown number of species. We do not even know how many. Species reach the natural end of their evolution all the time and become extinct… that is part of the natural cycle of life on earth. Yet the WWF estimates that the current rate of extinction is between a thousand and ten thousand times higher than it would be without human action. I wonder how long it will be before we ourselves are on the endangered list, having so far overset the ecological balance of the earth that it can no longer sustain us?

And what mother will weep for us then?