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Why it’s so easy to mistake this video of a polar bear petting a dog as tenderness

This polar bear would kill this dog. But it’s hard not to anthropomorphize its actions.

Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

Last week, a video of a polar bear, a ferocious predator, petting a dog on the head in Manitoba, Canada, went viral.

At first glance, it seemed like an extraordinary example of interspecies bonding, even tenderness or empathy. Mashable declared the video was “proof that everything is going to be just fine.” ABC News called it “heartwarming.” CNET wrote that it was a moment of “interspecies friendship.” The video spread through Facebook with a feel-good message.

Too bad the video — which currently has 3.8 million views on YouTube — is not quite what it seems.

When the Canadian Broadcasting Company followed up on the story, it found that the dog’s owner, a Manitoba man named Brian Ladoon, feeds polar bears that stumble onto his property. (It seems Ladoon has a history of trying to facilitate dog-bear play.) But Ladoon also admitted to the CBC that a polar bear had recently killed one of his dogs — because he forgot to put out food for the bears that night. “That was the only day we didn't feed the f---king bears,” he told the CBC.

Feeding bears to foster dog-bear interaction isn’t just dangerous for dogs; it’s also dangerous for bears — it can discourage them from hunting and embolden them to seek food in human communities where they’ll be shot.

And even if we wanted to see a tender act of petting, it was still likely just a predator sizing up potential prey. A misinterpretation like this is actually a disservice to animals.

Why we’re so quick to anthropomorphize animals

As humans, we’re prone to anthropomorphizing animals — explaining their behavior in human, emotional terms.

Why do we do this?

It begins with the remarkable power of empathy we have for our fellow humans, and the “theory of mind” we use to guess the thoughts behind the actions of other humans. I know someone is mad at me if they scowl in my direction. I don’t have to ask.

But while that makes human interactions go smoothly, it’s less adaptive when we use it on animals. As psychologists Kurt Gray and Daniel Wegner explain in their book The Mind Club, we’re duped by animal features that remind us of human ones. Animals that have big, expressive eyes, that are capable of human-like gestures with their limbs (like a bear petting a dog), and that appear to be quick-thinking are more likely to be seen as having a human-like mind.

“Movements such as changing gaze direction, perking up the ears, orienting the body, and reaching to touch are apparent reactions to stimuli,” they write. But we can never truly know the cause for animals’ actions.

In this case, the bear could have been simply conditioned to be temporarily docile around the dog. “Polar bears are most likely drawn to dog yards by the smell of food,” Todd Atwood, a wildlife biologist at the Alaska Science Center, writes me in an email. “They probably eventually get habituated to the presence of dogs and the pay-off is food scraps that they can scavenge. ... As long as there is food for the bears, there is no reason to go after a dog — but when the supplemental feeding stops, it raises the risk of a bear taking a dog.”

In many instances, our assumptions about animals’ minds aren’t correct. Crows may be just as smart as kittens, Gray and Wegner write, but people are less likely to see humanity in them. It makes people more interested in the conservation of human-like, “cute,” animals like pandas, and less likely to care about the fate of naked mole rats.

This isn’t to say animals don’t have emotion

There’s actually a lot of empirical evidence that most mammals, at least, are capable of empathy. It’s hard work that reaches subtle conclusions. (And the empathetic act of petting is probably pretty unlikely between a dog and a bear.)

For decades, scientists trying to study animal empathy have run into a simple, fundamental problem. "There are so many possible interpretations of [empathetic] behavior that all need to be eliminated if you're going to say they're responding because of the emotions of another animal," James Burkett, a neuroscience researcher at Emory, told me last year.

But with rigorous methods, there is some evidence that mice understand when a fellow mouse is in pain, and that they can console one another. More complex forms of empathy are seen in chimpanzees all the time. Chimps console their friends after a fight. They look out for one another.

That said, there do seem to be limits to an animal’s emotional life. The highest level of empathy is called cognitive empathy. This is the ability to think through feelings and weigh options: "Emily seems upset right now; does she want me to ask what's wrong?" No researcher would go so far as to argue that animals have cognitive empathy. That's distinctly human.

But scientists have made extensive progress studying simpler forms of empathy.

"We should think of ourselves as a part of a continuum," Larry Young, a neuroscientist at Emory University, told me. "These animals have some basic fundamental underlying neural mechanism that cause them to engage in a behavior similar to what we do."

So, yes, animals may have the machinery for emotion, for empathy. But we’re not doing animals a service by thinking they are distinctly human. By imparting our human emotions to animals, we’re actually making ourselves blind to the complexities and beauty of their natural behavior.

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