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CUTE OR CREEPY

Why some animals are more loved than others

05:45 AM May 04, 2019

PARIS — The Chinese giant salamander, the largest amphibian in the world, is not cute.

Weighing as much as an adult human, it has slimy brown skin, a giant mouth curled to a gormless grin, and puny, mistrustful eyes. It is also one of the world’s most endangered species.

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And yet, unlike its compatriot the giant panda, the giant salamander rarely makes the news.

Why do some animals strike a chord with humans, prompting them to donate millions toward their conservation, while others draw little more than disgust?

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And is a sad-eyed panda really worth saving more than a slimy salamander?

Size, intelligence, behavior, rarity, how closely an animal resembles the human form—all play a part in our reaction to various endangered creatures.

“One of the biggest factors is ‘cuteness’: physical characteristics such as big eyes and soft features that elicit our parental instincts because they remind us of human infants,” Hal Herzog, professor emeritus at West Carolina University’s Department of Psychology, told Agence France-Presse (AFP).

An expert in human-animal relationships, Herzog said the dark rings around pandas’ eyes triggered humans’ nurturing instincts.

“Compare that to the Chinese giant salamander,” he said. “Google it. It looks like a 6-foot-long, [70-kilogram] bag of brown slime with beady little eyes.”

The salamanders are a vital part of their ecosystem, just as worms are essential to soil health. Yet, like maggots, rats and snakes, the main instinct they inspire in humans is revulsion.

‘Learned’ disgust

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According to Graham Davey, a specialist in phobias from the University of Sussex’s School of Psychology, we learn to revile certain creatures at a young age.

“Disgust is a learned emotion. Babies are not born with it … it’s probably transmitted socially, culturally and within families,” he said.

Some animals are reviled due to their resemblance to “primary disgusting things” such as mucus or faeces, Davey said, while others are perceived—rightly or wrongly—to pose a direct danger to the beholder.

This might explain why most of us don’t find lions and bears repellant—they are covered with the same type of soft fur that coat cuddly toys for children, even if it might be better to avoid one in real life.

As with most things, popular culture has a huge effect on how society perceives animals.

Whereas the movie “Free Willy” prompted a wave of sympathy for the protection of endangered orcas, “Arachnophobia” hardly helped spiders’ cause.

Even the depiction of fictional creatures can have a knock-on effect on public perception toward certain animals.

Take the main being in “Alien,” for example.

“Seeing the one from the first film that had that mucusy drawl dripping from the alien’s mouth … sensitizes people to disgusting things,” Davey said.

A study in 2017 found a strong correlation between society’s preferred animals and those most studied in scientific research.

“Maybe that’s because it’s easier to get money” to study well-known animals, said Frederic Legendre, a researcher at France’s National History Museum.

“Reptiles, for example, are not very marketable,” he said.

Protect species, habitat

Not that favoring certain cute or charismatic species is necessarily a bad thing for conservation.

“When we protect an iconic species, we protect their habitat and therefore all the organisms within it also benefit,” Legendre said. —AFP

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