It’s astonishing how much of an animal’s “character” and “personality” we judge by its eyes. Look deep into an animal’s eyes and you guess what it’s thinking. Take the big cats: glinting, golden-amber eyes, focused intently on you (especially if you’re a deer), absolutely no mercy here, nothing but cold, clinical killing in those eyes. Look away. Even little cats have that chilling, sneering killer stare. In the dark they see six times better than us. But yes, those same eyes — so soft and shimmery, when they’re fussing over their babies.
Their victims blink large liquid eyes so innocently. Doe-eyes and sloe-eyes: Dark limpid pools to use a trite cliché. Harmless, gentle eyes: Frightened eyes. Not quite so, when they belong to rhinos or hippos though (the most dangerous animals in all of Africa). Even those sagacious giants, the elephants have tiny inscrutable eyes — whose mood you can’t quite gauge while looking deep into them. Are they benign and kindly or full of baffled, bottled rage? And then, there are the fools: wildebeest with bulging eyes plunging across crocodile-filled rivers, and horses, soft-eyed one moment, rolling their whites with spooky panic the next. And donkeys, sad-eyed always; wouldn’t you be if you were born one?
As for monkeys: I don’t like the eyes of Rhesus macaques — appraising, shrewd, sandy brown, blinking sanctimoniously — like the eyes of liars and conmen. You know exactly what the thug is thinking: “I am going to snatch his ice-cream and his mobile and glasses and bite his girlfriend’s bottom!” Chimpanzees and gorillas’ eyes: shining with keen intelligence as they plot the politics of their lives — who to butter up, who to terrorise, which babies to kiss, which to eat. Just like us, except politicians’ eyes don’t give anything away, but only flatter to deceive.
Rodents like rats and mice are typically beady-eyed: they don’t have eyes you would trust or fall in love with; much like the eyes of the serpents which hunt them: expressionless, non-feeling. As for other reptiles, like chameleons, whose eyes are mounted on turrets and rotate independently of each other like guns on a battleship, disconcerting to say the least. What are they targetting?
Fish, mostly glassy-eyed and vacant — except the merciless, quicksilver coldness of sharks’ eyes as they home in… And crabs, with eyes mounted on struts, giving them allround vision, aided and abetted by their skill in scuttling sideways!
Birds have eyes sort of halfway house between those of mammals and reptiles. Eagles and hawks and other hunters, have huge, fierce lenses, wide-angle and telephoto, piercingly sharp, with the same laser intensity of the big cats. Owls may look all wide-eyed and innocent, or very sleepy indeed, but they see everything — especially when you can’t. Blue rock doves have vacuous looking orange eyes, peacocks dark, eloquent ones with make-up to boot. Gulls’ eyes: always glacial and implacable, no feelings here at all. And all with that rather creepy nictitating membrane like an onion-skin shutter that sweeps across the lens, wiping it clean every now and then and making the bird look momentarily blind.
Insect eyes are what we imagine the eyes of Martians and other space invaders would be like: metallic, emotionless. Dragonflies have enormous bulging globules, in any colour you want — all 28,000 lenses of them. A nightmare if it wore contacts. Ants and cockroaches — beady pin-heads, but some spiders have lovely, starry eyes which they fix on you like rally car headlights. A fly’s eyes, truly beautiful when hugely magnified, but alas even it doesn’t see the spider when it leaps.
As a feat of optical engineering all eyes are astonishing — and you’ll realise that if you’ve done some photography. The first thing you’re taught in photography is to make sure that the eyes of your subject are pin-sharp, for that’s what makes it comes alive. And you learn to appreciate the sheer versatility of your own eyes, especially if you’ve struggled with (and been strangled by) a multitude of heavyweight lenses, each costing as much as a car. Here’s something, inbuilt, small, light (and often very beautiful) that can see perfectly in light and shade at the same time — without over or under exposing the image, that can switch focus from the tip of your nose to the moon in an instant, and which, most importantly, can tell you, without lying, if the person whose eyes you are gazing into deeply, loves you or not. And the beauty of it all: it’s not the eyes that see at all, because you see images when you dream too and then your eyes are shut.
And then, finally there are the eyes of your dog — which can make a marshmallow of you every time and anytime they are fixed on you. That biscuit, thank you!
Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird-watcher