I have a confession: I’m a crazy cat person. When I was four, I forced my mother to borrow the neighbor’s cat, and then tried to convince her that the neighbors were awful for lending their cat out like that, and we really shouldn’t be taking the poor animal back to such horrid people. At five I got my own beautiful, independent, and feisty cat who taught me a bunch of lessons in feminism, literally lived out nine lives, and kept me company for sixteen years. Then I adopted a crazy little kitten who once tried to murder me in the middle of the night by rolling a granite ball that was on a shelf above me, to the edge right over my head. (As evidenced by the fact that I’m writing this post, I heard the ball rolling and woke up just before she dropped it.) After that I adopted a pair of orange tabbies, and while it broke my heart to have to leave them with my mother when I went to grad school in Chicago, it’s all right because my mother treats them with more affection than she has ever shown her three children combined. (What? Are you honestly telling me your family isn’t even slightly dysfunctional?)
Boyfriend, on the other hand, regards animals with the same level of curiosity he feels about the changing trends in women’s hairstyles, or the colors in the sky as the sun sets: his eyes see, his brain registers that something is there, and then he moves on. Animals interest him only when Vladimir Putin is staging stunts with them.
Obviously, we’re not on the same page about adopting cats. He is working overtime trying to convince me we should get a goldfish instead. Or a bug of some kind, maybe a beetle. I am already thinking of first and middle names for the cats (as T.S. Eliot would have you know, this is no easy matter). And I’ll give it to him, he’s come up with some really imaginative reasons for why cats are not a good idea. Unfortunately, I always have the same response.
“If we have cats, we won’t be able to take random, unplanned holidays.”
“With cats around, we’ll have to cover our furniture in old sheets. Or worse, bubble wrap.”
“You know, some of our friends could be allergic, and they won’t be able to visit us anymore.”
“Oh, whatever. You only want kittens because they’re cute. No one wants the ugly animals.”
“Yes, people only like cute animals. Even scientists and zoologists and wildlife lovers.”
I took the bait that one time, and the conversation moved on from the question of adopting cats, to this:
“Did you know that funding for saving endangered animals, and even scientific research on endangered species, is directed almost entirely towards cute animals, or animals that are human-like? No one’s interested in saving animals they find ugly or repulsive.”
A 2010 University of Pretoria study found that since 1994, there had been over 100 published studies on meerkats in South Africa, but a mere 14 on the manatee, a species at higher risk than meerkats. Big mammals and predators are another favorite, because people are charmed by species that walk on solid ground, live glamorous lives, and are attributed with characteristics they would like to think of themselves as possessing. Remember all those times you were asked, “If you were an animal, what animal would you be?” “Oh, a lion, definitely,” is among likely answers. Or, “A Grizzly Bear. Yeah. I would totally be a Grizzly Bear.” No one ever says, “I think I might be a Humpback Slug.” Or, “I would SO love to be a Giant Ditch Frog.” It’s fine, of course, to imagine yourself embodying a lion’s fierceness, or an elephant’s strength, or a cheetah’s speed, or the grace of a springbok. The trouble is, these attitudes are bleeding into conservation efforts, and species that aren’t attractive or glamorous enough to grab our attention are getting wiped out. Elephants, rhinos, tigers, orangutans, and pandas are the A-list celebrities of animal conservation and research. And its Brangelina? Chimpanzees, with 1,855 mentions in research. Because, you know, they’re just like us.
Birds, reptiles, amphibians, and small mammals, on the other hand, are falling right through the gaps, because neither scientists nor conservationists seem deeply invested in highlighting their condition. And people, most of all – executives at giant corporations, whose job it is to give large amounts of money to environmental conservation, thereby assuaging the guilt of spilling effluents into the ocean; or people like us, who give tiny amounts of our monthly paychecks to animal rescue organizations – are not interested in the smaller, uglier, non-human-like species. The flightless Kakapo Parrot, for instance – of whom only about 120 survive in their native New Zealand – doesn’t have too many takers. Are there any winners at all, among birds? Yes, owls. Because they have forward-looking eyes.
Research at the Australian National University and University of Queensland determined that there are 1140 endangered mammal species in the world, but only 80 among them are repeatedly used by non-governmental organizations to raise money. Supporters of this approach argue that cute, cuddly, or glamorous flagship species are useful in attracting attention and funding for conservation efforts for other species too. Unfortunately, this optimism rings completely false when one considers the reality of conservation funding. There are too many species at risk, and just not enough money to go around. So sometimes, conservationists are forced to choose among species. And when this happens, researcher from Agriculture Canada suggests that among the top criteria are usefulness to humans, cuddliness, human-like traits, fierceness, and clean food habits. I mean, really, who wants to save that awful, stinky, carrion-picker, right?
Of course, given the overwhelming human tendency to make everything about ourselves, I’m not all that surprised this is happening. After all, we’re a species that has, throughout history, found ways of alienating, dominating, attacking, and even attempting to wipe out other humans because they’re different from us. We’re a species that continues to favor good looks over a number of other desirable attributes such as intelligence, kindness, or compassion. Obviously we discriminate among animals.
I’m still getting kittens, by the way. I don’t want a slimy, rainforest salamander, or a Scrotum Frog (Really. That’s what it’s called.) in my house. I just don’t. And I’ll admit – it’s because kittens are fun. They have human-like emotions, they communicate, they purr when they’re happy, and they let you know when they love you. But I do think salamanders and frogs are just as important, and I’m going to spend some time researching organizations that work for conserving such endangered species.
Also, I’m going to leave you with this link to the Ugly Animal Preservation Society. And the following picture to stare at, while you sadly contemplate the collective shallowness of humanity.