The media’s growing interest in how animals think

The more divorced we become from animals in our daily lives, the more we want to look at them online

Tip the elephant arrived in New York to accolades and fanfare—until things went wrong. A few years into his stay in the Central Park Zoo, the elephant began display strange bouts of anger and a mercurial personality. After several attempts to maul his caretaker, who had become convinced that the animal was hell-bent on his assassination, park commissioners deemed Tip too dangerous to keep and he was executed with cyanide-laced feed.

But coverage of Tip’s execution exceeded the “what happened” narrative in New York’s newspapers. Why was Tip so angry, reporters asked. Could an elephant be insane? The papers, including The New York Times, discussed not just with the logistics of the situation, but also the inner workings of the animal’s mind, covering the curious conundrum of Tip like it was the OJ Simpson trial. This was a feat, considering that Tip arrived in New York in 1889, a century-plus before the 24-hour news cycle.

Today, media coverage of animals has only intensified. Silly memes featuring cute animals are the glue of webby culture and communication: I Can Haz cats and Doge puppies, goats wearing sweaters and narcoleptic poodles.

But the coverage has gone beyond the memes and GIFs that have become staple internet fare. Readers remain fascinated with what animals think and feel to the point where many sites not only have animal verticals but are now using them for deeper coverage alongside lighter fare, offering a highbrow version of the meme-y clickbait.

“There is much, much more coverage of animal cognition than pre-Web days. It’s only growing,” wrote Alexandra Horowitz in an email to CJR. According to Horowitz, a professor of psychology who studies animal cognition at Columbia, the discipline is “accessible science, easy to understand and easy to translate to a non-scientific audience, and I think that has contributed to its spread.”

Consider a piece in this month’s Pacific Standard, breaking down the nature of dogs’ excitement when their masters are gone. Or this study, suggesting that dogs exhibit behavior similar to jealousy, which was covered by NPR, CNN, The Independent, The Guardian, Mental Floss, and in Time. The study came just a week after digital outlets covered the sad tale of Arturo, a polar bear in the Argentine Zoo who had grown “depressed” over his squalid living conditions. The story of Tip has even had a comeback, as a central anecdote in
Animal Madness, a book published in June looking at the mental health of animals by science historian Laurel Braitman.

Braitman traces this rising interest in how animals think, in part, as a way of filling up the void left by our increasingly urban lives. “Our forms of communication has always been full of animals—look at early cave paintings,” she says. “As we become more divorced from animals in our daily lives, the more we want to look at them online. It’s a really interesting way that we’re filling in these empty drafty spaces where animals used to be in our daily lives.”

But Web editors aren’t simply regurgitating slideshows of singing goats to satiate our desire for animal content. At Outside mag, for example, the 2010 feature “The Killer in the Pool,” about the effects of captivity on killer whales, was made into a film, after which staff decided to beef up that kind of coverage. They’re planning two digital longform pieces on similar subjects and make an effort to include at least a glimmer on cognition when they write about animals—even for a conservation story. “To do a story pretty well we have to touch not just on the conservation side, but the side that relates to the minds of animals as cognizant beings,” says Scott Rosenfield, Outside’s Web editor.

At Modern Farmer, pieces on animal cognition—looking at the intelligence of pigs and the happiness of farm dogs versus pet dogs—have added intellectual heft to themed animal weeks.

“We are not above a cute animal photo show. I have wrote an entire fashion week post with pictures of goats in sweaters,” says Senior Editor Andy Wright. “But I think the reason that readers respond to Modern Farmer is we have that mix of ‘here’s a cute animal’ and ‘here’s a weird story about how an animal’s mind works.’ I think if we didn’t have that mix, we wouldn’t be as surprising a publication.”

Lending weight to cute clickbait makes sense, but there are other reasons that readers may be interested in the internal worlds of angry goats. Perhaps the interest in animal minds is really a safe form of self-exploration—a way of reconsidering our own thinking and behavior.

“I think being a human can be a really lonely experience. I actually think we’re less social than a lot of other social animals,” says Braitman. “A young male orca would never leave his mother and go around the world in order to go to college. We’re actually a pretty independent species, but we’re also smart enough to reflect on it.”

And even sites like BuzzFeed, whose first incarnation was as a cute animal listicle pusher, is now focusing its animal coverage on how humans relate to animal feelings.

“BuzzFeed is looking for animals that are either relatable or doing something funny,” said Chelsea Marshall, animals editor. (Her official title is “beastmaster.”) “When you can relate what’s going on in a human’s everyday life to an animal and what they’re feeling—a dog looks like they’re having a great time, or having a really tired Monday—you make things a little easier for humans to understand. People always enjoy taking how humans are feeling and mapping it onto animals, because animals have a huge range of emotions.” This philosophy even translates into Marshall’s pageviews, where her most popular article is a quiz: “What kind of dog are you?” According to Marshall, I’m a Shiba Inu.

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Alexis Sobel Fitts is a senior writer at CJR. Follow her on Twitter at @fittsofalexis.