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Pet Selfies Are Not Selfies

In fact, they might be something way more interesting.
(Photo: MSVG/Flickr)

(Photo: MSVG/Flickr)

It’s possible that no recently invented word received as much attention in 2013 as “selfie,” the neologism for a photographic self-portrait taken with the express purpose of uploading to a social media network like Facebook or Instagram. With increased academic consideration and with even President Obama getting in on the action, it’s no longer as simple as writing selfies off as an outward manifestation of teenaged narcissism. They’re here, they’re fun, and they might reveal more about the self than a thousand personality tests. (For what can’t be learned from watching a selfie taker spend a few minutes fiddling with their hair to make sure the perfect look is achieved?)

But if the selfie is going to be accepted as a part of the culture, it’s important to figure out exactly what makes a selfie. Intent, for one. The idea is that the selfie taker is attempting to express something about his or herself, whether through a demure look, a goofy grin, or bugged out eyes. (I won’t even get into how Snapchat’s doodling features radically expand the capability for this kind of communication.) Which means another trend—the rise of so-called animal selfies—is as mistaken as the sign-language interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service. Search Google for “animal selfies,” and you’ll find dozens of photo galleries showing these “selfies” taken when an animal got too close to a camera or tablet and inadvertently snapped a photo of itself.

"There’s not a shred of evidence that any domestic animals, like pets, are capable of recognizing themselves in mirrors."

Now, I doubt even the most ardent animal lover would argue that a monkey, dog, bird, cat, or any of the featured animals were capable of recognizing what a typical point-and-shoot camera was for. (Actually, I take that back.) It makes perfect, simple sense that one of these animals might figure out that pressing the button produced a satisfying click and/or flash, and set about doing it as many times as possible. But what of tablets with front-facing cameras, where the user can see his or her own face as they adjust the frame? Might the animal be able to recognize its own face and, upon figuring out that recognizing that pressing the tablet produced a still image, make a conscious effort to capture itself? Might the animals, like us, be learning the joy of the selfie?

FOR CLOSE TO 50 years, scientists have been using “the mirror test,” which measures self-awareness by conditioning an animal to recognize itself in a mirror—or not. Gordon Gallup, who currently teaches at the University of Albany, first developed the test in 1970 with chimpanzees. He started by placing the chimps in individual rooms with mirrors and then observing their behavior. At first, they’d interact with the mirror as though they were responding to another animal. But around the third day they’d begin piecing it together, making faces and playing with their genitals to confirm that they were, in fact, looking at themselves.

After the 10th day, the chimps were anesthetized, and Gallup applied an odorless, non-irritating dye to their eyebrow ridge and ear. The chimps then were placed back in a room without a mirror. After their behavior was observed for a brief period, the mirror was re-introduced, and Gallup recorded how many times the chimps would attempt to play with the mark compared to when they were in the mirrorless room. The difference, he says, was astonishing. Enough of these tests were done to posit the idea that chimpanzees were capable of recognizing themselves in a mirror, an effect that was also verified with orangutans. Inconclusive evidence has pointed toward similar behavior in gorillas, elephants, and dolphins, though it’s worth noting that those are all animals associated with having a higher amount of brain function. “There’s not a shred of evidence that any domestic animals, like pets, are capable of recognizing themselves in mirrors,” Gallup told me. “To the extent that they respond at all [to the tablet’s camera] my guess is they’d be responding to another animal.”

Simple enough, right? Most animals can’t recognize themselves in mirrors; ergo, your cat is only responding to the mice scurrying across the screen when he uses his Snapcat app. But just because an animal can’t recognize its own self-image doesn’t mean it has no concept of self. “Not all animals are necessarily relying on vision to the extent that we do. A dog, for example, won’t pass the mirror test,” says Jason Goldman, who received his Ph.D. in developmental psychology at the University of Southern California. “But if you do sort of a species-appropriate sense test, a dog is quite skilled at distinguishing the scent of its own urine from the scent of another dog’s urine.”

Marc Bekoff, who is the professor emeritus of evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado-Boulder, performed this test by moving around snow that his dog had urinated on, and found that his dog was able to differentiate the smell of his own urine from others. His tests weren’t performed in a lab with rigorous controls and he’s careful about over-drawing conclusions, but nonetheless it was enough to suggest that there might be another component to self-recognition. “An animal may know its own sound, its own bark, its own birdsong. These are bigger questions because people haven’t really studied that at all,” he says. “For a long time people just accepted that only great apes had a sense of self. You know, we know that just can’t be true. So it’s just a matter of re-interpreting existing data and then adapting the methodology to the species’ sensory systems, like odor in dogs.”

For all we know, there could be an intentional dimension to those self-portraits. “You could look for certain behavioral parameters, or get the MRI pattern if a dog or an elephant looks in the mirror and see if the same type of image might be projected in the brain when they take a selfie,” Berkoff says. “You might be able to argue that, in fact, they’re feeling a certain thing when they see themselves.” That’s about as far as he’ll go, though. “I find this stuff really interesting, but I’m not convinced in any sense of the word that these animals are really taking ‘selfies.’”

I REALIZE IT MIGHT seem like I’m being endlessly pedantic over a very silly and lighthearted thing, but these small differences are important to note. The science of animal cognition is still a largely unexplored field, partially because the proper methodologies are still being developed and because, relatively speaking, figuring out how much a dog knows is not science’s top priority. Still, it’s science. As much as animal lovers might think they know what their pet is thinking or feeling, the work that people like Gallup and Bekoff are doing is crucial in separating fact from fiction. In some way, what scientists are able to rule out makes the truth even more profound.

Take, for example, the emotional rapport that just about any pet owner will claim they have with their animal. “All animals learn to respond to cues from their owners. They’re associating changes in their owner’s behavior with other outcomes,” Gallup says. “That falls short of making inferences about what their owner’s thinking, and it falls short of inferences about how their owners feel. But it can be a very effective way of tracking and anticipating how their owners will respond to other things.” In other words, our dog might not be able to tell why we’re sad, but it can sense what being sad means—fewer walks, delayed meals, no tossing the ball around—and that cheering us up might help. It’s a subtle distinction, but it’s a distinction nonetheless. So yes, there might be something meaningful besides intent in an animal selfie. And there might not be. But the truth is out there, and it might not have anything to do with the mice on the iPad screen.