On Monterey Bay, a tour boat laden with wildlife photographers spotted a sea otter. The boat headed over. When they got close enough to point their cameras at the otter, the otter pointed a camera at them. Enrique Aguirre got the shot that shows the otter with the videocamera.
As Stephanie Pappas wrote in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, “Judging by the rust and seaweed adorning the camera, the otter probably wasn't getting much good footage.”
People seem to think that the otter was just curious about this peculiar object, presumably dropped overboard by some unlucky butterfingers. And was imitating the way people hold such objects. Cute! What a crazy picture.
When we see animals do things that are typically human, we tend to think they're copying us. Trying to be like us. I think it's more reasonable to guess that they're trying to figure out what motivates us – “what do humans get out of this?” Naturally, I like to toy with explanations which give the animals more credit—and which may be more sinister. There's a paranoiac and all too plausible possibility: They're making fun of us.
When an otter points a videocamera at people pointing videocameras, maybe what's going on is something like, “Okay, I'm the big guy in the blue windbreaker [stupid deep voice]: 'Wow, what do you think they weigh?' Now I'm the woman with the knitted hat [stupid squeaky voice]: 'My sister will be so jealous she didn't come when she sees these pictures!' Now I'm the kid [panicky voice]: 'I'M GONNA BE SICK!'” The otters all laugh so hard they submerge.
(Maybe that's not paranoid enough. Maybe they're spying on us. Maybe the seaweed on the camera is crafty camouflage. Maybe they're sneering at us right now in the Situation Room. Naah.)
There could be other instances where we suppose animals are copying us uncritically, but where we might be wrong. I'm thinking of an account I read of a satin bowerbird in a national park north of Brisbane (related by Greg Czechura of the Queensland Museum).
The males in this artistically gifted species not only build bowers, they sing, dance, and steal beautiful objects to decorate their bowers. (This keeps them too busy for tasks like building or defending nests or feeding fledglings. Freebird!) Their songs include mimicry of other birds' songs.
This particular bowerbird was putting on a show at his bower, observed by a fascinated crowd of birdwatchers. In the midst of his imitations of various local birds, a cell phone rang. All the birders started grabbing for their pockets and bags, looking for their phones.
Of course, the ringtone came from the bowerbird. Czechura thought it was pretty funny, and maybe the bird did too.
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Uh huh. But what about ridicule?