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Of Pikas and Cuteness

A victory came Wednesday in the case of the pika. This tiny, threatened alpine creature now has a shot at endangered species protections. The pika is eligible because its habitat is warming, and it is the first mammal in the lower forty-eight to be considered for that reason.

But if you know only one thing about pikas, it will inevitably be this: they are adorable. Think mouse-eared baby bunny that never grows up.

This fact is not lost on the earnest environmental advocates at our headquarters office. Universal cooing when the pika video comes on. Even hardened press guys melt; the nickname "boulder bunnies" ends up in the press release.

When something is cute, all information gets filtered through its cuteness. This, for example: "Pikas spend summers diligently gathering flowers and grasses and store them in 'haypiles' for food to sustain them through the long winters." Diligence! Haypiles! Could you die?

Of course all of the attention lavished on the precious pika makes one suspect affirmative action for the cute. What would become of some slithering, ghastly mud-dweller with the same qualifications for protection? How embarrassing and untoward, if we, humans, environmentalists, caught ourselves playing favorites like that. How petty and superficial—just because it's cute.

The science and ethics of which species most deserve protection are way beyond my receptionist pay grade. But I will submit that cuteness is neither petty nor superficial. Think of our great human reverence for sex as an evolutionary force. We hold the whole process in high esteem.

But, while sex appeal may make babies, it is cuteness appeal that keeps those babies alive. The urge to protect the cute must be as deeply ingrained as that other urge that gets all the attention. Cuteness deserves its due as one of the great shaping forces of nature.

And if the pika is a beneficiary? Set aside the slithering beast described above, and its hypothetical fate. The power of cuteness may well spare the pika from extinction. And saving the pika—even registering it as Endangered—requires acknowledging and combating the ravages of climate change on habitats. That could have a few, shall we say, incidental benefits. Even to the slitherer.

Tags:  pikas