As humans, we are preconditioned to adore and protect things that are ‘cute’ – creatures that have big eyes, chubby cheeks, and make nonsensical noises – you know, like babies. This is an evolutionary mechanism put in place to ensure that parents care for their vulnerable young rather than abandoning them before they are prepared to survive independently.
For humans, however, this extends beyond our own kind, which is why we find puppies, kittens, and panda bears so darn cute. Unfortunately, this phenomenon may also be impeding our conservation efforts at a subconscious level.
To know that so many adorable polar bears are becoming isolated at sea and starving to death gives us motivation to do something about climate change, obviously a very critical and relevant issue. But what about helping those lesser-known “uglier” creatures who are deprived of attention from awareness campaigns and the media? Chances are, there exist many “non-flagship” species that provide essential ecosystem functions (think: keystone species) that are being ignored within the realm of conservation solely based on appearance. Quite shallow of us, isn’t it?
The main point is that decisions surrounding conservation and preservation should be based on a species’ intrinsic value to the overall ecosystem, which is virtually independent of physical appearance.
Of course, this makes sense in theory, but many of our previous efforts suggest we have often done otherwise. Understandably, it may be difficult to convince the public to help conserve average- or scary-looking species, but it may be a necessary move in order to make the most of our conservation attempts.
This is nothing to be ashamed of – after all, thinking like this is hardwired into our brains. I’m quite guilty of this myself: my desktop background features Milo, the late sea otter from the Vancouver Aquarium. And he is just the cutest.