Photo courtesy of WilliamCalvin.com
From John Berger, "Why Look at Animals?" (1977):
The zoo cannot but disappoint. The public purpose of zoos is to offer visitors the opportunity of looking at animals. Yet nowhere in a zoo can a stranger encounter the look of an animal. At the most, the animal's gaze flickers and passes on. They look sideways. They look blindly beyond. They scan mechanically. They have been immunized to encounter, because nothing can any more occupy a central place in their attention.
From the Daily Telegraph:
A study of orang-utan behaviour suggests that just like many of us they regard "people watching" as a pleasurable way to spend an afternoon.
The discovery was made after experiments with five orang-utans at Australia's Melbourne Zoo. In the tests, the viewing window onto their enclosure was either left completely open or half covered.
This gave the apes the option of hiding behind the concealed part of the window if they wanted to protect their privacy.
But far from avoiding the prying eyes of the public, they preferred to sit in full view looking back at the humans.
Figures compiled by the University of Melbourne showed that they spent four times longer watching people than they did out of sight and looking the other way.
Five orang-utans is hardly conclusive proof of anything. But my own observation contradicts Berger: most animals aren't interested in us (and why should they be?), but some are fascinated. I've had my gaze held by an animal in a zoo a number of times. What that means is another question: maybe, like those orang-utans, they are interested in you as a fellow creature; some sympathetic spark jumps the gap between species. More likely they see you as a potential predator, a potential meal, a potential competitor for a spot in the hierarchy.
In any case, Berger puts too much weight on the gaze, because he's an art critic and because humans are very visual animals. Our gaze doesn't necessarily mean a lot to a bat or a dog or most other animals. Daniel Dennett once speculated that a dog, with its highly developed sense of smell and poorly developed visual system, doesn't "see" things as we understand the word: a bird flying overhead merely leaves it with an impression of "birdishness", in much the same way that the dog's rich smell-picture of the world is reduced by us to the sense that things are a bit whiffy. So an animal doesn't return your gaze; maybe it's wondering why you don't return its ultrasonic chirrups or respond to the friendly overtures it's making by means of secretions from its scent glands.