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Television Review

'Why Dogs Smile' Suggests Answers, Questions

May 08, 1999|HOWARD ROSENBERG | TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

The Associated Press reported that a 72-year-old elephant died in an Indian zoo recently after refusing to move, eat or drink for 24 days after the death of a younger elephant that was her closest companion.

Grief?

It's dangerous, and against the grain, to suggest that animals have feelings. If they do, how moral is it to cage, hunt, slaughter, eat and wear them?

A new Discovery Channel documentary skirts that old but controversial issue when at times ascribing human emotions to animals. That's not to say humans and other animals think alike or at the same level, only that feelings are another common denominator that links us.

Carol L. Fleisher's "Why Dogs Smile & Chimpanzees Cry" is a smart film that has its share of talking heads in natural history filmmakers and noted scientists explaining brain imaging and other technologies designed to study animal behavior.

Much more captivating, though, is its footage of animals, from seals to monkeys, that clearly express such emotions as fear, friendship and mother love.

That includes extraordinary pictures from Martyn Colbeck showing a newborn elephant looking like a poor bet for survival while laboriously shuffling along on his front knees instead of walking. By remaining with him and nudging him to get up on his front legs when the rest of the herd moves on, his mother and adolescent sister save his life. Three days later, he's on all fours, having had time to stretch his compressed tendons while protected from predators by the two older elephants that refused to abandon him.

Although this footage is not new to TV, its impact remains powerful. As are familiar pictures of famous Washoe and his fellow chimps that psychologists Alan and Beatrix Gardiner say communicate their emotions in American Sign Language.

Yet interviewed briefly here, too, are scientists from Atlanta's notorious Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center, which animal right groups have long accused of treating chimps inhumanely. Notably, the Yerkes people omit commenting on the feelings of caged chimps used in lab experiments.

* "Why Dogs Smile & Chimpanzees Cry" airs at 8 p.m. Sunday on the Discovery Channel.

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