I knew of the environmental issues effecting the Antarctic long before the release of Happy Feet. However it wasn’t until I watched the film that I actually started feeling bad about it. Why is it that we’re only made aware of animal issues by giving them human characteristics? Humans marvel in their capacity for understanding and thought, yet we treat animals and our environment with a thoughtlessness that is almost outstanding.
Penguins are a star example of humanity’s need to anthropomorphise animals. They are an ideal candidate as they live in remote, inaccessible areas, making it easier to idealise them as a symbol of nature. The Antarctic area they usually live in is also free from cultural ties, making them accessible by people from all areas of the world. Then there’s the fact that they stand upright, much like a human does, but with an exciting strangeness in their movements that makes them fascinating.
In film form, penguins are subjected to human standards and compared to- as well as given- human characteristics, to make the wild more accessible. In doing so the viewer is shown a distorted reality of what penguins are actually like. Whilst they may have built an emotional connection to the character shown in the film, that character is no more than a construct, devoid of actuality.
In the film it shows mother penguins stricken by grief at the loss of their chicks, trying to steal other chicks to ease the pain. In this process orphan chicks can be crushed to death by the struggle of desperate mothers. By is this really a sign of mourning, or is it just us imposing our own belief system on how we think the penguins should react? It’s a hard question to answer, even for researchers. There has been no substantial evidence to suggest that penguins are in fact capable of feeling grief, and yet in the film it is posed this way anyway. This brings us to the question, if the penguins don’t feeling grief, rather are just acting off their instinct to produce and care for young would they still be so relatable? Would the cause to save them seem just as legitimate?
If it really doesn’t matter if they were actually in an emotional state of distress, then why did the producers feel the need to exaggerate the penguins melancholy? And if it does matter, is that a failing of the penguins themselves, or society at large? Let’s assume for the sake of the argument that the producers added this human emotion because without it, the perception of the penguins would change.
Can we hold penguins to a moral standing that they don’t even have the mental capacity to understand? Of course not, and yet we persist on doing exactly that. Humans constantly over-state or over-emphasis the emotional capacity of animals (however underestimation is just as large of an issue, as seen in the captive Orcas of SeaWorld). By assuming that the penguins endure great distances of travel and cold in the sake of love would be grossly inaccurate on a scientific level. Whilst it is hard to determine the emotional capacity of any animal, penguins show no demonstrable or measurable emotional awareness.
So is it rather out of pity for the unknowing? When we see a penguin cooing over a dead chick- which is standard behaviour for a penguin with a chick that is unresponsive- do we actually feel pity in the fact that the penguin can’t understand that their child is gone, rather than assuming the penguin is acutely aware of the situation? Nature documentaries are more likely to take this perspective, as they aren’t trying to build a narrative in which the characters must have an angle or motivation for acting the way they do.
Animals seem unpredictable until you realize that their main goal in life is survive long enough to have successful offspring. It is through our privileged lifestyle and mental capacity that we have the time to ponder the emotional state of these animals. It seems unlikely that the possum you see scourging up the tree looking for food even has time to worry about the nature of it’s existence, or the welfare of the bug it is so relentlessly chewing into. It’s hard for humans to see from other people’s perspectives, little alone other species perspectives. The humanization of animals in the media is just a physical manifestation of society’s need to find a purpose if the ways of the world, to seek a meaning higher than the base instincts in which animals live on.
Humans are only given one outlook on life, which is to be human. Therefore in order to understand matters that are anything other than human we desperately search for characteristics we recognise. This leads to a distorted view of the animal world, however if it aids in the motivation of people to save the environment and the animals that live within it, maybe, just maybe, the means justifies the ends.