AboutZoos, Since 2008


Study shows ugly endan­gered ani­mals are over­looked in favour of the cute.

pub­lished 28 April 2012 | mod­i­fied 28 April 2012

Size really does mat­ter — just ask a whale. A new Cana­dian study indi­cates their remark­able bulk is a big rea­son whales attract fer­vent con­ser­va­tion efforts. Being cute and cud­dly works, too,

for species in need of pro­tec­tion. It helps to be worth some money. And a “bizarre or fero­cious appear­ance, if enter­tain­ing, can also be a key to con­ser­va­tion,” writes researcher Ernest Small in the jour­nal Bio­di­ver­sity.

That adds up to bad news for endan­gered crea­tures that hap­pen to be lit­tle, plain and decid­edly un-​cuddly, like Ontario’s snuff­box mus­sel. Sorry guy. You’re too clammy for us to care, even though your pop­u­la­tion in Canada has dwin­dled to per­haps a few hun­dred liv­ing in just one Ontario river. When God was hand­ing out attrib­utes, you should have asked for a mane.

Unfair? Of course it is. But peo­ple seem hard­wired to respond to cer­tain char­ac­ter­is­tics. Cute and cud­dly beasts are rem­i­nis­cent of human babies; that’s why there will be coo­ing crowds when pan­das come to the Toronto Zoo. Phys­i­cally impos­ing ani­mals are an embod­i­ment of power — another attribute appre­ci­ated by humans. And it’s eas­ier for us to bond with fel­low crea­tures that are warm-​blooded, have ver­te­brae, and pos­sess eyes we can inter­pret as soulful.

Small’s arti­cle, titled “The New Noah’s Ark: Beau­ti­ful and use­ful species only,” makes the point that ecosys­tems ben­e­fit from broad and diverse preser­va­tion efforts. “Unfor­tu­nately, numer­ous ani­mal groups in dire need of con­ser­va­tion, such as frogs and snakes, are decid­edly hand­i­capped by both their appear­ance and behaviour.”

Insects are among the most threat­ened of all. But except for but­ter­flies (beau­ti­ful) and bees (valu­able), “most are usu­ally per­ceived very neg­a­tively,” writes Small, a sci­en­tist with Agri­cul­ture Canada.

The les­son here is that human per­cep­tion seems remark­ably fixed. Pop­u­lar­ity goes to the big, bold and beau­ti­ful, to the cute, and those worth money. In short, the rules that apply in high school extend to the rest of the ani­mal kingdom.

The above news item is reprinted from mate­ri­als avail­able at the Toronto Star. Orig­i­nal text may be edited for con­tent and length.

(Source: The Toronto Star, 23.04.2012)

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Tiger map” (CC BY 2.5) by Sander­son et al., 2006.

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