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

You have probably often been among the thousands who visit the scores of zoos each day throughout the world. Then you may well ask yourself how far you were able to deduce the emotions and thoughts of the animals you watched, for this is the keynote of the pastime of understanding animals and of the art of portraying them realistically with pencil, brush, or modeling clay.

Some morning when you are feeling particularly alert and fit, stroll into the lion-house and notice how quiet everything is in the various cages. Our lordly friend—the Bengal Tiger—is probably asleep, lying on his back, feet in air, in an attitude of complete relaxation. The King of Beasts himself (not quite so kingly at this early hour) is just waking up, yawning, stretching himself and gazing lazily about in a rather owlish fashion. A restless leopard paces slowly back and forth, and the lion-cubs are having their morning toilet. How they snarl and shrink away as the rough tongue of the lioness washes the dirt and grime from their soft and yielding bodies! Everything is peaceful here at present, a perfect cow stable or sheepfold atmosphere pervades the place, with no signs of the fierce and savage traits that will manifest themselves later in the day when hunger and the sight and smell of food arouses these inherent characters.

Slowly as the hours pass, a subtle change comes over the assembled felines. First one and then the other rises and begins to walk, exercising if you will, but not consciously we may be sure. Occasionally dreary howls come from the tiger’s cage where the great striped brute is already casting off his figurative sheep’s-clothing and gradually changing before our very eyes into the ferocious killer of the Indian jungles. Lions, both male and female, are practicing in concert heavy, dour and terrible sounds that in their native Africa strike terror to the herds of game coming down to drink at the water-hole. Leopards, pumas, jaguars—all are slowly but surely disclosing to our awed and interested eyes just what it means to be a hungry carnivore. But if you have not observed them with more than usual attention you have not discovered how differently from other animals these creatures exhibit their feelings and thoughts.

Feeding time

Noon-hour has passed and an ever-increasing excitement is apparent among the inmates of the great cat house. Ever fiercer and more continuous are the growls, snarls and roars of the now really hungry felines which seem to know almost to a minute the time when the door at one end of the long building will open and admit the keeper, wheeling in a barrow the daily supply of fresh meat. Feeding time at last!

The odor of bloody flesh strikes nostrils well accustomed to the smell, and then a sort of frenzy breaks loose all along the line of cages. Our tiger, no longer a sleepy, docile looking creature, leaps back and forth in the narrow confines of his den—fire flashing from the golden eyes, the great fore-paws armed with wicked looking talons stretched eagerly forward to seize the food thrust under the bars at the front of his cage. A harsh coughing roar greets the keeper as the huge piece of gory flesh is snatched from the iron fork and the long, yellow canines close over it with a vise-like grip. Determination, ferocity, power—all these flash before our eyes—emotions (not anatomy) impress themselves upon our vision at this crucial moment and we as human brings are afraid, aghast, before this exhibition of tremendous and terrible energy. Back rushes the great striped beast to the farthest corner of his cage where, crouched low over the coveted repast, he alternately growls and bites off great pieces of meat which he swallows whole. In no time only a broken shin-bone or a shoulder blade remains of what was after all a meager portion of food for so large an animal. These gruesome objects are soon rasped clean by the rough pink tongue, and again a curious somnolence comes over the lithe and sinewy body of the great cat.

The water which the keeper brings and pours into a shallow pan is lapped up eagerly but now with no terrible growlings or show of anger. For the tiger, the business of the day is finished and there is nothing ahead of him but sleep, exercise and a looking forward to the same sort of repast twenty-four hours hence.

We have just seen (perhaps with rather startled eyes) a major example of what constitutes a very interesting phase of feline nature, but are we able to analyze and possibly reproduce on canvas or in clay, or even accurately describe, just what has so lately and forcibly impressed us? I feel certain that we can not unless we have had a great deal of previous training. Have we noticed for example just how the tiger crouched to grasp his fancied prey or what emotion he is showing at the moment, and how that emotion will be expressed anatomically? Evidently the intense desire for food has temporarily transformed the erstwhile mild and placid beast into a fiend incarnate, and strange things have happened in the big cat’s brain to alter his usual mood of callous indifference. Rounded ears were back and down, held tightly against his head; the great eyes blazing with a greenish fire; and the terrible jaws widely opened. Lips drawn back; nose wrinkled and whiskers pointed forward; canines exposed, and curled up tongue—all served to create that terrible and sinister facial mask without a parallel in the whole realm of animal life.

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