By Matthew Phelan
For over a decade, the viral content and news media organization BuzzFeed has produced articles purporting to convey the rich inner lives of animals, both in the wild and domesticated, most frequently pets.
Citing telltale facial expressions and other physical cues captured in candid photographs, articles like “33 Animals Who Are Extremely Disappointed In You” and “17 Pugs Who Are So Proud Of You” have become a staple of the site’s staff writer output and user-generated community over the years. Like BuzzFeed’s quizzes and its blockbuster 2015 story investigating the ambiguous color scheme of a Roman Originals dress, these pieces have nearly become synonymous with the site’s brand. But how accurate are they? How good are we really, as humans, at reading animal body language?
Scienceline asked Katherine Albro Houpt, a behavioral scientist at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, to assess the actual emotional states depicted in these animal photographs, based on her decades of clinical experience with domestic animal welfare.
The results were surprising, if not incredibly disconcerting. At a minimum, they suggest that our gut assumptions about our animal friends’ emotions can be incredibly misleading. We thought we knew them! Domesticated cats, horses and others have lived alongside us for thousands of years! Domesticated dogs have lived alongside us for tens of thousands! Where did we go wrong? How did we mess this up for SO LONG?!
A Corgi from “13 Times You Disappointed This Corgi Dressed As A Pirate” (May 2, 2014)
BuzzFeed staffer Sami Main attributed a full baker’s dozen of thoughts and statements to one photo of an unnamed pembroke welsh corgi adorned with a pirate’s hat. The photo had been posted to Reddit in 2014. Many of these thoughts involved puns related to pirates, dogs and the popular culture of that era, conveying the corgi’s purported disappointment with the reader (e.g. “Arrrrrr you kidding? You haven’t finished ‘Breaking Bad’ yet?” and “Planking is very over. Stop, please.”).
But, in fact, the corgi was afraid.
“You can see the whites of his eyes,” according to Houpt, “and that’s a sign of fearfulness in dogs.”
“What it means is that he has a lot of epinephrine,” Houpt says. “So, that makes them open their eyes wider — and that’s what you see.” Epinephrine, commonly known as adrenaline, is a naturally secreted hormone produced to stimulate blood flow and blood-sugar levels in response to threats or perceived threats. When Scienceline asked if the corgi might be afraid of the pirate hat on its own head, Houpt suggested that might not be the main issue. It could be anything from objecting to the camera pointing at him to worrying about a big, intimidating dog standing behind the camera.
A Horse from “12 Extremely Disappointed Animals” (August 31, 2009)
“This horse,” says BuzzFeed writer Jack Shepherd, “was just, I dunno, hoping for something different.”
One of Houpt’s primary research areas is the habits of equids, the taxonomic family of mammals that includes horses, donkeys and zebras. Her primary focus is their maternal behavior. In her opinion, this particular horse is remarkably sanguine.
“Well, her ears are up,” Houpt says, “so she’s not too unhappy. Her mouth is relaxed, so she seems to be fairly neutral emotionally.”
Houpt says that the key to discerning the emotional state of horses is the slight muscles around their eyes and nostrils. When a horse is either upset, frightened or in pain, those muscles will contract. “Their mouth will seem to be harder,” she says. “And their nostrils — instead of being round — will be very tightly shut. You may see the whites of the horses eyes.”
Given all this, Houpt believes this mare is relatively calm and happy, with little in the way of dissatisfaction or disappointment at all. The misunderstanding here is probably that, because horses don’t smile when they are happy, their comparatively relaxed and neutral expression of satisfaction (or chill vibes) can come across to some humans as ennui.
A Cat from “12 Extremely Disappointed Animals” (August 31, 2009)
“This cat,” BuzzFeed reported in that same 2009 listicle, “can’t even look you in the eye right now.”
But, in Houpt’s experience, this cat’s meatloaf posture is potentially indicative of something much more serious than disappointment.
“That often means that they are uncomfortable,” she says. “Some cats do it all the time, but if it’s a change for your cat, he could have arthritis or a different disease.” A housecat that has gained some weight and “has to carry an extra five pounds,” according to Houpt, might also express its physical discomfort by assuming this meatloaf position.
In other words, if your cat is acting like this, please(!!!) do not make it about yourself or waste time wondering what your cat is thinking about you. It might be worth taking your animal companion to the vet to discern whether or not they are in genuine pain.
A Poodle from “17 Dogs So Disappointed In The Human Race” (May 2, 2016)
This poodle in profile, looking sullen and forlorn in a car’s passenger seat, might very well be “not so pleased” with her new haircut, as reported by one of BuzzFeed’s Animals junior writers two years ago. That is, if it is even a poodle at all.
Houpt was baffled. “Certainly the white poodle, or whatever it is, might be shy,” she told Scienceline, “avoiding eye contact.”
Ultimately, this fuzzy blob might best serve as a cautionary tale about the limited utility of photographic data in isolation. This nebulous, cloudy-white mass could be anything. It might not even be a real dog!
A Dog dressed as a martini from “17 Dogs So Disappointed In The Human Race”
(May 2, 2016)
Kudos to BuzzFeed: This golden retriever might actually be “so disappointed in the human race” — or at least the representative humans that it knows.
“The dog with the elizabethan collar, that’s pretty cute actually,” Houpt says.“ The olives.”
“But he’s pulling his ears back, so he’s neutral. Not terribly happy, I would say.”
Have you ever seen a picture of yourself from a party and thought, “Why am I making that face?” Part of the problem here appears to be that a single photo can be a mediocre gauge for any living thing’s state of mind. But beyond that, the case is clear that animals express themselves in ways that the average person just doesn’t comprehend intuitively at all.
Scienceline reached out to Buzzfeed’s communications team, as well as one of its former Animals section editors and several of the above pieces’ authors for comment. BuzzFeed, as an institution, did not reply in time for this article, but Sami Main — comedian, Adweek social editor and author of “13 Times You Disappointed This Corgi Dressed As A Pirate” — did.
“Animals sure do put up with a lot from their human counterparts,” Main said. “Bless dogs for putting up with us.”
Beyond mischaracterizing the corgi’s inner monologue, Main expressed remorse over the piece’s arguable overreliance on topical humor, admitting that she had, in fact, not actually seen a single episode of Breaking Bad.
“It truly is difficult to read an article that’s full of clearly dated references,” she said. “Take pity on me.”
It’s a fair point.
Some might argue, in fact, that these are exceedingly negligible offenses with respect to both the ethical treatment of animals and BuzzFeed’s obligations as a news media outlet.
But, regardless, readers should exercise skepticism when presented with claims made in online periodicals (or anywhere else) about the substance of an animal’s thoughts or feelings. Consider the source! These claims might very well be incorrect.
Images: Corgi in Pirate hat via Imgur, Horse photo via utata.org, loaf cat, white cloud in car seat via Claire Rhine @crhine5 on Twitter, Martini Air Bud by Imgur user Charliezarrdd.