Xtreme Zoo Babies

[6 August 2007]

By Mikita Brottman

There used to be a show I was quite fond of on Animal Planet called Zoo Babies, featuring adorable infant giraffes, zebras, marmosets, and other neonatal crowd-pleasers. Zoo Babies isn’t on any more, but in November 2006, the National Geographic Channel went one better with a show called Animals in the Womb which, via “state-of-the-art visual effects, computer graphics and real-time, moving 4-D ultrasound imagery” took us inside the wombs of three animals—an elephant, a dolphin and a dog—in order “to trace their vastly different paths from conception to birth” and “uncover evolutionary clues to their ancestral past by observing the fetuses in utero.”

These images weren’t easy to capture, as you can well imagine, with each animal offering particular unique challenges, according to the show’s producers. In the case of the elephant, the pregnant mother was trained to sit still near the scanners, then cameras were inserted into her womb through her rectum. Yikes.

Long before the National Geographic show had aired, these ultrasound images could be found online, spreading like cat dander. When re-posted, the pictures were invariably separated from the National Geographic’s scientific blarney (“evolutionary clues to their ancestral past” and so on); what drew peoples’ attention was their off-the-scale cuteness rating. There’s no denying it: they’re pretty damn cute, especially the elephant, which I’ve been using as my screen saver. The best selection of images currently online can be found at The People’s Daily Online, a Chinese newsletter.

Zoo babies are adorable, too, but not so much when they’re first born. Most people would probably agree that these in utero cuties are far more appealing than actual newborn babies, of any species, which generally resemble squirming, wrinkled larvae. Most mammals don’t reach the photogenic stage until they’re at least two months old, when they are officially of legal age to model for Cute Overload.

Still, despite all its scientific and evolutionary sops to Cerberus, it’s no accident that National Geographic chose to use a dog, an elephant and a dolphin, three of the most intelligent and friendly members of the animal kingdom, on many peoples’ list of favorites. Notice the scientists didn’t include an ultrasound of a litter of rats in utero; that might just remind people of a lab experiment, or make them want to lay traps in their basement.

But that’s the way it goes with Animal Planet too, where some animals are definitely more equal than others: more cuddly, more poisonous, or more deadly, with the channel’s programming dominated by shows like The Planet’s Most Extreme Animals, The Planet’s Funniest Animals, Animal Battlegrounds, and Fooled by Nature. All we ever seem to see are perennially popular animals like meerkats and koala bears, or “extreme” animals like big cats, sharks, and, of course, crocodiles (rest in peace, Crocodile Hunter).

Ordinary animals that are neither especially cute nor particularly “extreme,” like common weasels and hedgehogs, never seem to get a fair shake. (This could be changing—news is just in that British forces in Iraq had to deny rumors they released a plague of ferocious, man-eating badgers into the city of Basra.)

What’s especially appealing about National Geographic’s in utero images, by contrast, is how peaceful and quiet the unborn babies appear to be, neither pitching battles, being funny, or doing anything “extreme”. The baby elephant, we’re informed, stays in this idyllic state for almost two years, the longest gestation period of all mammals, and at birth weighs nearly 260lb. Those who comment on the images often remark on how detailed they are. You can see the baby elephant’s fully formed toenails, the ridge of little hairs on its trunk, its peacefully closed eyes with their long lashes. The dog is already quite furry, its claws, tail, and tiny footpads clearly discernible.

It’s never been made clear to what extent these images have been enhanced by computer graphics. They’re obviously enormously magnified, of course, but has color also been added? (All the ultrasounds I’ve seen before have been black and white). There’s also a strange displacement between the fetus and the mother’s internal organs. Only the dolphin image actually shows the mother’s womb; the elephant and the puppy look as though they’re free floating in outer space. (And note there’s only one puppy—what happened to the rest of the litter?)

Wherever these images have been re-posted online, those leaving comments have made parallels between these babies and human embryos in the womb, often as a way of generating support for the Pro-Life movement. After they were featured in the online edition of the British newspaper The Daily Mail, for example, one user commented, “Maybe it will make people realize that if animals look like this and we recognize life in them at such early development, then we should reconsider the practice of discarding unborn human babies. Just a thought.” Another added, “Gives a different perspective to any abortion and especially late term abortion.”

A third suggested, “Most people would rightly think it wrong to butcher the beautiful baby elephant that is half way through its gestation period, yet when it comes to human babies, it happens hundreds of times every single day…How can we allow such brutality against unborn human beings to continue?” And columnist Kathleen Parker, discussing the images at the website Townhall.com, asked the following question: “When the tears are dry—audiences reportedly weep at this film—abortion will seem inconceivable. Who could destroy an unborn puppy?”

Nobody goes around aborting unborn puppies—we wait until they’re born to get rid of them (thousands of unwanted puppies have to be destroyed every day). I’d also venture that not too many Pro-Lifers are vegetarians, since they often claim that God put animals on the earth for man to use. Consequently, they seem to have no problems chowing down on veal or pork chops, never mind that little calves and piglets surely look just as cute in utero as elephants and puppies. Obviously, it’s just abortion that’s at issue—there’s nothing wrong with wholesale slaughter.

Photo from Homes4Pups.com

Photo from Homes4Pups.com

I’d assumed the whole anti-abortion philosophy to be based on the belief that the human being is sacred, different from the rest of the earth’s creatures, rather than on the theory that we shouldn’t harm creatures that look cute. Otherwise, you’d think God might have considered giving us all paw pads and a curly tail.

Mikita Brottman is an author, psychoanalyst, and chair of the humanities program at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara. Her book, The Solitary Vice, was published as a PopMatters imprint in 2008 (see 1 of 3 excerpts here). She lives in Ojai, California. Her website is available here.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/xtreme-zoo-babies/