‘Eroding the Barrier?’ Inter-Species Relations

Browsing a ‘news’ web-site recently, my eye was drawn to a link to an item about a predator animal behaving ‘benevolently’ toward a prey animal, seemingly acting against its supposed biological ‘hard-wiring’.  OK. Sucked in! I had to have a look.

The story was accompanied by a series of photographs so was, ‘therefore’, supposedly credible (if we overlook any possibilities of digital manipulation or an incomplete series of images)… an adult lion running down a young wildebeest. Then, rather than sinking its teeth and claws immediately into the young animal, the big cat appeared to sniff, nudge and rub its head on it – presumably to be seen as a display of affection. And there ends the series of images. Leaving the more gullible/hopeful/optimistic of us with a warm and fuzzy feeling and the sceptics amongst us scoffing and ‘knowing’ what the rest of the images would have revealed. This is not to say that cross-species ‘friendships’ do not occur and there are enough documented cases of this happening. But what I am referring to is the proliferation of the sensationalist stories and the accompanying ‘supporting’ images on such web-sites (examples here and here).

After musing over the initial item, what struck me next was the number of links to similar stories, bearing attention grabbing story titles, or tag lines, like ‘Extraordinary images of tiger befriending baby deer!’ My interest was piqued. Not in the animal behaviour aspect per se, even if the images were to be taken at face value. What got me thinking a little more deeply about these stories was why they might be so numerous.

I made reference in a previous article on this blog (It’s only a dog…you can get another one!’, June 1, 2014) to the ‘dominant Western paradigm’, and the entrenching of a human/nature divide, and the overlaying of Derrida’s strategy of deconstruction on text to disclose the power imbalance in such binary oppositions and how these then become fixed and unchallenged in everyday dialogue and discourse. This time I’d like to add to this notion of a human/nature hierarchy (with humans above nature) by very briefly considering some points on identity formation, and the politics of exclusion, and drawing a connection to the appeal of the above images/image sequences.

Humans are social beings, with a desire to belong, particularly to what we perceive as the ‘in’ group. Wanting to belong and at the same time having an understanding of what differentiates us from others gives us a sense of our personal and social location/identity. But our identities are not static, nor neutral, as we continually renegotiate how we see ourselves in relation to what we perceive as the identities of those around us (whose identities are also in a state of flux) and, in turn, who we wish to ‘belong’ with. As well as similarities, the ongoing process uncovers differences. Establishing difference creates a boundary (artificial) and, ultimately, leads to the ‘politics of exclusion’ (see, for example, Clayton and Opotow, 2003, Hall 1996,): the creation of ‘us’ and ‘them’, who, because they are not ‘us’,  are perceived as being ‘Other’ and politically less powerful or deserving of less power.

We (‘Us’/humans) are constantly torn between the two polar opposites of wanting to hold the rest of nature (‘Them’/the Other) at the proverbial arm’s length in so many ways, due overwhelmingly to the cultural conditioning mentioned previously, and having a deep desire to be re-connected with it, to belong to the greater whole. Or, as Devall and Sessions (1998) put it, re-immerse ‘self in Self’, where [little s] self is ‘us’ and [big S] Self is the total, organic whole of planet Earth.

While our perception of the rest of non-human nature remains static (as in humans separate from and above nature) so will our sense of identity in relation to it and, thus, the continued delineation between ‘us’ and ‘them’.  By attributing the more human like characteristics to the non-humans in the aforementioned images we are, I believe, in some ways yielding to a deep, biophilic (see Kellert and Wilson, 1993), desire to remove the artificial barrier separating the human from the non-human. By attributing the predator animals with human-like notions such as benevolence or kindness (anthropomorphising) and by playing on the ‘cuteness’ factor (see Gould,1980, on neotony, or Brin, 1995, in this web article) the images (in the ‘doing and the viewing’) wear away at the barrier. But – in keeping with our entrenched notions of human superiority, and thus upholding the hierarchical   dichotomy – the tension between the poles is still constantly at play: we do so by making them a little more like ‘us’ rather than making ‘us’ more like them.



Clayton Susan, Susan Opotow, 2003, Identity and the natural environment: the psychological significance of nature, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Devall B, Sessions G, 1998, ‘Deep Ecology’ in The Environmental Ethics & Policy Book, 2nd edition, ed D VanDeVeer & C Pierce, Wadsworth Publishing Co, Belmont CA, pp 221-226

Gould S J, 1980, ‘A Biological Homage to Mickey Mouse’ in The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History, Penguin Books, New York, pp 81-91

Hall S, 1996, ‘Who Needs Identity’ in Questions of Cultural Identity, eds S Hall & P Due Gay, Sage Publications, London, pp 1-17


Author: Dian Fowles