Like approximately two billion other people, I was briefly taken in Tuesday evening by a YouTube video purporting to show a golden eagle attempting to capture a small child in a city park in Montreal. For most watchers, the video was persuasive and scary, showing a large, dark raptor suddenly swooping down and grabbing a fleece-clothed toddler by the shoulders, and carrying it for ten or fifteen feet before dropping it. The video went viral almost immediately and was exposed as a hoax almost as quickly.
But even exposed as a hoax the video's immediate, extreme popularity reminds us of something very real indeed about our place in the natural world.
Here's the hoaxed video, in case you haven't seen it already. It contains a moment of language not precisely safe for work.
Within minutes of seeing the video, and posting a link to it on my blog -- like I said, I was taken in at first -- I started to see pointed skepticism expressed about the video's veracity. Some of it was the usual cynicism that attends any interesting thing on the Internet, allegations that beautiful images are "shopped," and so forth. But some of the skepticism was far more detailed and persuasive.
Within a couple hours of the video's posting, renowned birder Kenn Kaufmann posted the following analysis on Facebook:
"A golden eagle tries to snatch a baby in Montreal," and the video goes viral. But it's faked. Golden Eagle is a scarce visitor in the Montreal area, but the bird in the video is not a Golden Eagle, nor anything else that occurs in the wild in North America. This was clearly a setup: using a falconer's bird, and probably a fake toddler for the distant scene. With all the ignorance about nature that's out there already, the last thing we need is this kind of stupid garbage.
Kaufmann is justly famous for his incredible observations of detail: He's written and illustrated one of the premier series of field guides now in print, and if there's anyone who can look at a few pixels of alleged golden eagle and dismiss that claimed identification out of hand, it's him. Other birders of my acquaintance were more guarded in their skepticism, though few seemed willing to accept the video without question.
As it happens, the video was even more fake than Kaufmann had first speculated: it was a CGI project done by students at a local art school in Montreal:
The video shows a royal eagle snatching a young kid while he plays under the watch of his dad. The eagle then drops the kid a few feet away. Both the eagle and the kid were created in 3D animation and integrated in to the film afterwards. The video has already received more than 1,200,000 views on YouTube and has been mentioned by dozens of media in Canada and abroad.
The production simulation workshop class, offered in fifth semester, aims to produce creative projects according to industry production and quality standards while developing team work skills. Hoaxes produced in this class have already garnered attention, amongst others a video of a penguin having escaped the Montreal Biodôme.
That view count is past five million at this writing.
In a post on his blog this morning, Kaufmann is unsparing in his criticism of the video, and of the news media that uncritically aired it:
Why would anyone do this at all? People in modern society are too far removed from nature as it is, and all too ready to believe scary stories about wild animals. Why go to all this effort to create fear about harmless and beautiful birds?
... People have limited attention spans, and any retraction or correction will never have the reach of the original video. Vast numbers of people, only peripherally aware of nature in the first place, will come away with the lingering impression that eagles sometimes carry away babies, that nature is dangerous. And that will represent one more sad break with reality, one more piece of damage done, one more falsehood to carry us all farther away from a real understanding of the natural world.
Kaufmann has a point, but his criticism is not one that should be solely leveled at the makers of the eagle video.
We live in a time that is very likely unprecedented not only in human history, but perhaps in the history of life on earth: a time in which unarmed humans can venture out into the wild world, drop their guard, fall asleep on the ground, make noise and be conspicuous, and never give so much as a passing thought to the possibility that something out there might want to eat us.
There are exceptions, of course, and I've written about them here. Even in thoroughly tamed California pumas and sharks kill a few of us per decade. There are animals that will kill us reluctantly, spiders and snakes and such. Elephants and hippopotami sometimes kill us because we're annoying. Grizzlies and polar bears, tigers and other big cats, Komodo dragons and the world's crocodilians make up most of the animals that attack humans as prey with anything like regularity, and the vast majority of people in the world will never see any of the above outside of a zoo.
We have pretty much tamed the world. The only large animal that poses a consistent threat to us is other humans.
But that hasn't sunk in yet, hence the popularity of literature and film in which non-human predators threaten us. From King's "Cujo" to Mamet's "The Edge," from Grimm's fairy tales to Alien and Predator, we seek out the monsters we used to spend every moment of every day avoiding.
Little Red Riding Hood notwithstanding, the literature we seek out depicts adult men and women facing down the beasts. Sometimes the grownups win, and sometimes they lose, but either way the basic narrative of encountering the predator gets sanitized.
It's sanitized because throughout most of our history, it wasn't the manly men and brave women being stalked by the big cat. Predators with enough sense to engage in risk benefit analysis knew that taking on the taller human with a sharp stick was a sucker bet. Now and then they'd catch one unawares and alone, but we had this pesky tendency to stay in groups. Even if the tiger killed an adult, it would likely be driven off before it could eat. No payoff there.
It was much more sensible to go for the kids instead: smaller, easier to carry, less wary and more defenseless, and at a certain age very likely to wander off just far enough from the tribe to allow them to be snatched.
This is in part speculation, of course: we don't have all that much in the way of family death records from the Pliocene. But it's speculation based on basic predator behavior: unless you go for the young, the weak, the sick, and the old first, you're wasting energy and lowering your likelihood of survival. And we are spectacularly vulnerable when we're young. It is near certain that at least one of your ancestors watched an animal run away with their child in its jaws.
That basic fact of predation hasn't changed: just the odds. The one recorded human killed by a coyote in California was a two-year-old girl. Though wild North American wolves have killed no one that we know of, their Eurasian cousins have, and children make up as much as 85 percent of the victims over the last few centuries.
Other hoax videos made every bit as expertly don't get anywhere near five million views in 18 hours. In the clear light of day, Kaufmann's expertise is easy to share: the white markings on the tops of the wings absolutely exclude it from the category of "golden eagle," and the bit about goldens being rare in the Montreal area is a definite tip-off to those who know East Coast birding. If the students had made it look more like a golden eagle, put the city park west of the Rockies, and made the kid a bit younger and simulated greater injury, we might still be arguing over whether the video is a fake.
But there's something about the story line that made even internet-skeptical people run with this video. Something deep and archetypal. A story we've feared since before we were human.
Kaufmann is right: nature mostly doesn't do that to us anymore. We mainly do it to ourselves.
There are threats to our children, still, as we have seen in obscene detail in recent days, but we are the ones doing the threatening. We've spent the last week grappling with just how close to us the Newtown shooter was. We bandy phrases like "mentally ill," "deranged," "evil," to reinforce the separation between those of us who are "normal" and the predator who did such a horrible thing. It's hard to accept the fact that not so long ago the Newtown shooter was one of those kids; that one of his victims likely wanted to protect him every bit as much as the fallen teachers wanted to protect their students.
I wonder whether part of the eagle video's astonishing popularity lies in the fact that this week of all weeks we really needed to hear the older version of the story again. The version where the child is threatened by something wholly unlike us, that we need not empathize with. Where once the camera catches up with the action the kid bursts into frightened tears, the adults form a protective circle around her, and all is well.
Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Director of Desert Biodiversity, he writes from Joshua Tree regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly. Read his recent posts here.