Xtreme Zoo Babies

National Geographic's Animals in the Womb brings up an interesting thought; nobody goes around aborting cute, unborn puppies -- we wait until they're born to get rid of them.

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, 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

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.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.