October 25, 2011
A swansong to an opossum, or: The psychology of compassion
When I was a little girl, there was a very popular series for children on German TV. It was called “Daktari” and dealt with a single-parent veterinary surgeon and his daughter in East Africa. Together they lived through many adventures. I loved the funny father-daughter banter, the exotic flair of the place and the scurrility of many characters. But the real star in that series was not human. It was Clarence – a lion. A lion with a little weakness though. Clarence was cross-eyed. And I found him downright adorable. Just to make it clear: we are not talking about a cute little lion cub. Clarence was a big, grown up, male lion, very impressive, looking dangerous and intimidating. And yet, whenever the camera focused on his face and showed his eyes I could hardly hold back the wish to cuddle him.
Not long ago, Heidi made headlines. An opossum, yes. When she had to be put to sleep because she was old and ill, a wave of sympathy shook my Twitter timeline. I’ve never heard of any other opossum that was mourned so much. What was the reason for this broad interest in a – let’s face the truth – little old rat? You can easily guess… Heidi squinted. (Read more about “Heidi, the cross-eyed opossum” on the website of Leipzig Zoo.)
People with strabismus are usually not very happy with it. It causes them a lot of problems. Especially the lack of stereopsis severely affects their quality of life. It is hard to move in our 3-dimensional world lacking a perception of depth. And usually we do not tend to find squinting persons cute or sweet. Rather people laugh about them, often making cruel jokes, because they match strabismus with minor intelligence. So we do everything to find a cure for it, often by surgical intervention.
So, what’s behind our strange fascination with cross-eyed animals? Is there a psychological explanation for it? A question that I could not get out of my head…
I scoured the web for it, but unfortunately nobody seemed to have been interested in this question before (if you find out more, please let me know!). So I am now depending on my own musings.
Actually, strabismus is not unknown in animals. Most animals that have their eyes at the side of the head, e.g. horses, gazelles and deer, squint. Evolution has given this as a gift to them. They can overlook a wide area, and are thus more aware of enemies. Alas, this gift has a serious side effect – these animals haven’t got a very good perception of depth. Like squinting humans, they lack stereopsis.
But obviously this kind of strabismus is not what moves us so much. At least I don’t notice people running around telling me, “Oh! Look at that sweet cross-eyed horse!”:-) Frankly, most people don’t even seem to notice.
What makes Heidi and Clarence so special then? Of course the key word is compassion.
Compassion is one of the noblest feelings human beings are capable of. It is the foundation of being human, as it were. It is compassion that makes our society function. Compassion is the reason that makes us care for people in need: the very old, the very young, the sick, the poor, the weak. Without compassion there would be 7 billion highly intelligent, skillful and at times even brilliant, but also cruel and greedy animals out there. It is this feeling and its derivates, like tenderness, mercy and and the urge to take responsibility for others, which shape humankind. Obviously we feel compassion not only for our human sisters and brothers, but we also extend it on other beings, especially animals. But why does this feeling apply to a squinting lion and a cross-eyed opossum, yet not to thousands and thousands of squinting horses, gazelles and deer?
Perhaps it is because the squinting of Clarence and Heidi is more prominent. It’s more prominent because lions and opossums have, in contrast to horses, deer and gazelles, a face that reminds us of ourselves, because the eyes are in the middle of the face, and not at the side of the head. So they appear to us more humanlike. It seems that the more a being resembles us the easier it is to connect with it and feel empathy, whereas we have apparently (and sadly enough) big problems to feel compassion for beings – or people – who are different. A study seems to support this. Another reason is the sheer number. Heidi was one, and Clarence was one, a single being, lifted out of the masses, one we could turn our eyes to and concentrate on, in contrast to those zillions of other animals. There have been studies recently that leave me sore and sad, saying that obviously our compassion quickly reaches its limits as soon as there is more than one who would need it. We seem to have less compassion already, if there are two – and it almost vanishes when we talk about dozens, hundreds, thousands. We just grow case-hardened when we are confronted with masses of suffering. That seems to be what makes it possible for us to stare at pictures of piles of people who died in wars or massacres without an emotional breakdown. I really would want to believe that this is not true – yet it seems to be supported by psychological research.
Also, Heidi and Clarence are not the average animals of their kind, which might be another reason. Did you know that Heidi has two siblings, both squinting, both alive, both living at Leipzig Zoo? Why aren’t they as famous as their older sister? It is only a thought – but if you check out their images at the zoo’s website, they look rather “normal”, despite their cross-eyedness. Heidi on the other hand was ugly. Just look at her! She looks devastated, worn out and helpless – and our hearts fly to her, full of sympathy. We seem to give compassion easier if the subject is extremely indigent. But what about Clarence? He didn’t look needy. He looked strong and powerful. What was the crucial point about him? Probably exactly that – wasn’t he the “fallen king”, the “crushed power” because of his squinting? In the film we saw him, the beautiful king of the savannah, frail. His wild mane, his gracious walk, his iron muscles – everything in vain. That little weakness of his made him dependent on humans, far inferior to his strength, to feed him and care for him. Perhaps this was the reason for my awkward wish to cuddle an animal that could have fed on me for breakfast.
In the end there might be different reasons why people are fascinated with animals like Heidi, Clarence and the others you see on this page. Human emotions are a complex thing, and our reasons to feel – or not to feel – compassion, mercy, tenderness and empathy are strongly dependent on who we are, what values we cling to and what we have gone through. But one insight became important for me, while I was thinking about this issue: We should be compassionate. We need to be compassionate. We can be compassionate. No matter who needs our sympathy. We are human beings. Let’s show it.
“Compassion is not religious business, it is human business. It is not luxury, it is essential for our own peace and mental stability, it is essential for human survival.” (Dalai Lama)
A wholehearted “thank you ever so much” to Paul, Brandon and Martyn from the Community of Flickr for the instant willingness to let me borrow their pictures for my blogpost! (Click on the names to visit their photostreams – it’s worth it! Also check out Paul’s wonderful Blog “Bedlington Wanderer“!)
A special thanks also to the people of Leipzig Zoo who generously allowed me to use the pictures of Heidi!