What Are They Thinking?

Characteristic facial expressions, postures, and movements are the key to an understanding of animal psychology and the soul of animal art.

rage in three guises

Rage in three guises

Charles R. Knight

Rage in Three Guises. Different animals express the same emotion in many different ways. Above are shown a bear, abull, and a horse in their characteristic postures of anger. A bear that has risen on his hind feet, with teeth bared and fore paws ready to strike, is a bear to he feared. A bull, on the contrary, instead of rearing up, lowers his head and charges full speed with sharp horns foremost. Other horned animals use a similar attack, but a stag, when it has shed its antlers, will use only its hoofs, apparently realizing his seasonal disability. An angry stallion, as shown above, will display extreme ferocity, rising on its hind legs and striking terrible blows with fore feet or seizing its adversary with its powerful teeth. A mare, on the contrary, will wheel and kick with her hind legs. Though a frightful adversary, the horse is far removed from the flesh-eaters. Standing gracefully on its one-toed feet, long-legged, deep-chested and powerful, it depends primarily on its speed and stamina to out-distance its enemies.

tiger illustration

The Tiger stands forth as a shining example of lithe and rhythmic motion controlled by a rather crude mentality and an innately ferocious disposition as befits a real killing mechanism. The three drawings show the change of expression and posture of a tiger in three successive moods. Note the change in the angle of the ear, which is one of the telltale features.

(far left) Relaxation is evident in every line of the tiger that is thinking neither of food nor an enemy. The neck is comfortably at ease, the ears are at rest, and the eyes are focused on nothing in particular. Here the dangerous killer of the Indian jungle shows almost the complacency of a house cat. (bottom) At the approach of possible danger the tiger lowers its head and flexes its legs for rapid forward movement. The ears go alertly forward and the eyes and nostrils grow sensitive in the effort to size up the foe. (near left) The ears are thrown back as the beast, suddenly ferocious, bares its teeth and emits a terrifying roar.

“Animal pantomime”

The student is, therefore, strongly urged to study what we may call “animal pantomime.” For it is the actions and postures which an animal displays that reveal its principal emotions—fear, anger, curiosity, sex attraction or repulsion. This being so the writer, a worker of many years standing, desires to call attention to certain important points about this fascinating subject—points which he believes, after long experience, will be a help to those similarly interested.

Our tiger stands forth as a shining example of lithe and rhythmic motion and beautiful color controlled by a rather crude mentality and an innately ferocious disposition as befits a real killing mechanism. Between this animal and the swift but non-aggressive horse, whose herbivorous habits are reflected in a disposition at complete variance with the typical flesh-eating animals, there are many other types, each with its peculiarities, mental and physical, strongly developed and unique in their way. Elephants, camels, horned animals—as the cattle, sheep, deer, antelopes, etc.—the swine, the bears, dogs and a host of others are all wonderful and interesting creations in the sphere of mammalian life. All are rare combinations of mental and physical characters in which either as artists or students of animal behavior, we will find endless opportunities for study.

You have seen that the reactions to a given emotion are quite different in a tiger and a horse; and in turn the pose that will be assumed by an angry bull, dog, or deer is likewise distinctive. Animals that have found themselves in possession of some outstanding advantage (such as the horny head growths in creatures like the cattle, deer and goats) are very quick to make use of the superior powers and change their method of attack and defense accordingly. Consider, for example, how a bull or a stag when alarmed or angry instantly lowers the head in an attitude of defiance, and when sufficiently excited charges at full speed against an adversary. No such action as this is noticeable in our tiger or horse simply because their fighting implements are employed in an entirely different manner. It would seem as though the presence of the sharp and dangerously pointed head growths actually impressed itself upon the mentality of the animals. The stag as an instance (whose antlers are shed annually) will, when in a hornless condition, depend entirely upon its sharply pointed hoofs in fighting, feeling no doubt the lark of its former, well-developed safeguards. On the contrary, weak spots in the anatomy are also realized by the creature possessing them and one sees an elephant raise the delicate and sensitive trunk high out of harm’s way in avoiding the charge of an angry tiger, at the same time trying to crush the infuriated cat under its massive forefeet.

Natural History Feb. 1938 cover
The drawing of the cover of this Natural History is of a young lioness observed by the writer in a zoological garden. Her expression denotes maternal anxiety, for a keeper was moving about in the distance and she is watching him closely for fear he may approach and steal or molest her cubs. Alert and fiercely determined to defend the helpless babies at all hazards, the female lion is a most dangerous antagonist to either man or beast. In this case the man is too far away to elicit a demonstration of anger from the big cat, but a closer approach would instantly transform her anxious expression into one of extreme ferocity.

Psychology of animals

Both in clay and on canvas, the writer feels, and he trusts with reason, that over-emphasis has perhaps been laid in recent years upon the necessity for knowledge of animal anatomy without sufficient importance being ascribed to the psychological aspects of the same problem. That the two things are very closely connected seems to be beyond dispute and as a concrete example of their successful combination let us look at the work of the great French animal sculptor of the last century—Antoine Louis Barye. This man working in the poorly exhibited collections in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris was nevertheless able, by dint of hard work and great genius, to produce many splendid examples of animal sculpture, which have not been equaled, let alone surpassed, in this generation.

view counter
view counter

Recent Stories

Algae, plants and humans: three groups of organisms that used chemistry to change the planet.

Peaks protected fifty years ago by the Wilderness Act no longer keep mountain goats safe from human impact.

By the 1920s, California had lost all of its grizzly bears—once considered a distinct species and an emblem of the state.

Preconceptions skew our view of the biggest killer in the developed world, atherosclerosis.