The Wild Ones

Videos of exotic pets replay comforting fantasies of domestication

The theory is this: 10 million years ago, the last descendants of the saber-tooth cat wandered the plains of central Asia and Europe. The evolutionary middle child of ancient cats, they crossed into northern Africa at the beginning of the last ice age, but as the glaciers thawed, the path back home was lost. Genetic drift took hold as they bred among themselves in their new environment, producing several new species, including the serval. It looked like a domestic cat on stilts, with oversize parabolic ears like twin satellite dishes lined incongruously with fashion fur. Smaller than leopards but bigger than sand cats, servals were the middle children of the middle child.

Servals typically spend most of their lives alone, subsisting on rodents and birds in the tall grasses of sub-Saharan Africa. Yet one ended up in a Las Vegas suburb in the care of Morgan Lynn, an aspiring internet personality who posts as “LasVegasBarbie.” In early 2012, she introduced her followers to Zeus, a baby serval who squirmed out of a travel crate as Lynn sat on her bathroom floor with her son and daughter. Zeus tumbles across the glossy tiles, intermittently stroked and squeezed by the three humans crowding around him. “It’s using me like a tree,” Lynn’s son says.

Exotic animal videos are thus equal parts cute and contraband: Forbidden animalistic impulses are trapped in a suburban web of incipient domestication

Zeus is one of many wild animals who not only are kept as pets but also turned into channels. In Japan, one couple shares their apartment with an otter, Sakura, several of whose videos have attracted over a million views. A Russian couple adopted a mountain lion named Messi from a local zoo; his channel, “I_am_puma” has amassed more than 26,000 followers. Alex Komachek has been posting from her home in rural Arizona since 2009, amassing over 100 million views of the many different animals she keeps, including two pet camels, an emu, an ostrich, a mink, and a wolf. Zeus’s channel is called “SpottedExotic” and has over 96,000 followers, several thousand more than “LasVegasBarbie.”

I’ve watched Zeus’s suburban life unfold from afar: I’ve seen him bat at frozen salmon filets thawing in the sink and when he encountered snow for the first time, flinching in disbelief as he spread a pile of it across the hardwood floor. I saw him sniff confusedly at a stuffed cheetah doll.

Local TV news used to fill time now and then with odd pet oddities, but with YouTube, the occasional distraction has become a willful routine of mild transgression. If a home is meant to set humans apart from nature, the presence of wild animals both violates this logic and extends it. Exotic animal videos are thus equal parts cute and contraband: Forbidden animalistic impulses are trapped in a suburban web of incipient domestication, registering as endearing signs of consumable inhumanness. One can imagine developers using them as promotional material to sell escapees from precarity on a new subdivision.

As with video-game streams, unboxing videos, and webcam-philosopher videos, watching the serval or the puma becomes a pretext to gaze into the ordinary spaces of other people’s homes, which become as familiar as our own while also remaining an exotic dream space where wild creatures roam. Watching Zeus, Messi, and Lorne mingle with their owners and other domesticated animals, there is a double vision of the home itself: one you can never leave and one that was never there in the first place.

The subtext of many internet videos is time, money, and leisure — conspicuous consumption reconceived as amateur performance. In the 21st century, it has become aspirational to watch someone who simply has a house and enough spare time to pursue a hobby, enough money to support another life.

Watching exotic pets mingle with their owners, there is a double vision of the home itself: one you can never leave and one that was never there in the first place

One unifying characteristic of exotic pet owners on YouTube is the regular reminders they give that their pets are not in fact pets. “Sincerely, we do not recommend taking a puma into your home,” Messi’s owners write. “It’s very dangerous!” Lynn likewise cautions that servals are wild animals and illegal to keep in most states. Komechak posted a video that showed her wolf, Lorne, attack her after she failed to pick up on several stress cues. It kept her head gripped in its jaws for several minutes. She later noted that much of what we have learned to love in canines — the tail wagging, the face licking, the excited jumps — isn’t happiness but discomfort. “That behavior that most people find cute, it’s not cute,” she said. “It’s a high level of anxiety … That dog is essentially thinking I don’t want this person to hurt me, I don’t want this person to kill me … Your dog feels like he always has to work for you.”

Yet in many exotic-animal videos there is also a naiveté performed for the benefit of the viewer, in which a few telegenic minutes of interspecies companionship mask the mundane, unfilmed labor of caring for a fundamentally alienated creature in need of continual attention and demanding continual compromise. Instead viewers can participate in a spectacle of utopian kindness as if it were a dream job, a fantasy of sympathetic dependence in which they can imagine they are on both sides: dispensing domesticating care with ease, and experiencing the security of being domesticated, getting practice in needing a feed from a machine in the same way a dog needs a stream of gentle hand strokes to be reassured it’s in the right place with the right person.

In Second Nature: The Inner Lives of Animals, Jonathan Balcombe, an ethologist with a specialization in bat behavior, points out that we can only imagine what it is like to perceive the world as a bat — “to have an umwelt that includes being able to recognize objects down to details in their surface texture using echolocation or using the earth’s magnetic field to orient ourselves during long-distance migrations.” When humans gaze on animals, according to Balcombe, “we are no longer frowning before a mirror, but gazing through a window.”

John Berger, in Looking at Animals, described the experience of expanding human perception through animal experience in more invasive terms: “suddenly and disconcertingly we see between two frames. We come upon a part of the visible that wasn’t destined for us.” This, uncoincidentally, is a good description of the internet’s supernatural draw on our attention: its promise to broadcast the awkward intimacies of life’s interstitial moments and, in so doing, make the familiar appear as a series of honey-tongued heresies that encourage a kind of cognitive dilation in which categories begin to subdivide like syllables of a person speaking in tongues. Viewers begin to view their own quotidian rituals with the same alien curiosity of a carnivore slapping at the glossy alien surface of a vacuum-sealed piece of fish floating in a sink full of warm water.

In the Book of Isaiah, the mingling of species was meant to mark ultimate salvation, a prophecy of a savior who “will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears.”

The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.

Through the extraperceptual expression of righteousness, all the creatures of the world will be freed from the sanguine tide of aggression that pulls at their minds and muscles, and predator will join prey in companionship. The miracle of our time is that anyone with an internet connection can witness these marvels, once unimaginable without messianic intervention. The least believable part is not that one animal would agree to keep company with another but that either would come to live in a tract house, trapped in a maze of drywall and leisure, where both predator and prey greet each other with a shock typically reserved for intruders.

Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York and the author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men.