I Brake For Cute Animals

Zoos still hold to the notion of the “great chain of being”

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Rose Eveleth has an interesting piece on the National Resource Defense Council’s OnEarth blog about zoos choosing to house only the cutest, “richest” animals and leaving the less appealing critters to their own devices. This is important, Eveleth says, because zoos often operate breeding programs where endangered animals can safely reproduce offspring, which can then be released back into the wild, thus increasing the species’ ultimate prospects for survival.

Eveleth calls on Daniel Frynta, an ecologist at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic, to explain the concept:

Frynta defines a rich animal as one that we like. And, he says, we have very specific tastes. It’s got to be big. It’s got to be cute. It’s got to behave or look human-like. If it’s colorful, we like it. We also like things that play and speak and travel in family groups. Those animals, he says, get to stay in zoos. Poor animals—the ugly ones—stay outside where their habitats are quickly being destroyed.

The more lovable, human-like animals that Frynta describes are also the most profitable for zoos to exhibit as they draw larger crowds than their less-attractive brethren. As an example, Eveleth notes that the U.N. Convention on Migratory Species has named 2011-2012 the “Year of the Bat.”

The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums celebrated the Year of the Gorilla with special activities and events at zoos the world over, but has no such plans for the bat. Simply put: a bat doesn’t put rear ends in the seats like a gorilla does.

At the heart of the issue is the experience of identification. As the ethicist Warwick Fox explains in his 1990 book “Toward a Transpersonal Ecology: Developing New Foundations for Environmentalism,” human beings identify most readily with family members or friends, then with human members of their community, then with human strangers, and finally with the realm of plants and animals. So, it comes as little surprise that humans, as Frynta explains, are most interested in seeing zoo animals with attributes or behaviors similar to those of humans.

Another obvious influence on the “rich animal” phenomenon is medieval Christianity’s “great chain of being,” which essentially ranks and establishes a hierarchy for all of nature. Thus, lions are deemed of higher rank than housecats because, as the logic goes, lions are wild, untamed animals while housecats are domesticated.

Of course, upon closer inspection, the idea of the great chain of being is ridiculous and wholly arbitrary. For example, do cheetahs rank higher than leopards since they run faster? While a housecat is beneath a lion, is it ranked above an armadillo seeing as how an armadillo is a wild animal, but less cute and cuddly than a housecat? The ranking of animals in the “great chain of being” hinges on a subjective criteria based on the animal attributes deemed most valuable by humans.

So what? Why does it matter that animals were ranked in medieval times based on some capricious system? It matters for two reasons.

First, as Fox explains, humans who identify with another being (be it human, animal or plant) are much less likely to injure or kill the being with which they identify. This is the same reason why the enemy in every war must be portrayed as the other, as not human.

Second, the logic underpinning the “great chain of being” and the “rich animal” phenomenon is steeped in human chauvinism, or anthropocentrism. The animals in the zoo are deemed valuable because of the entertainment or interest that they offer to humans. Thus, if humans deem an animal to be less than entertaining or generally uninteresting, its value decreases.

Such a worldview posits humans as the penultimate expression of life and allows humanity to decide which animals live and die based on their value to humans. Such thinking is dangerous and juvenile.

A more mature perspective recognizes the intrinsic value and interconnection of all beings. All beings are inherently worthy of life not because humans say so, but because a power external to humans has placed the animals on the earth and given them life.

The vast majority of people in the United States are likely unaware that there is a way of perceiving the world outside of the “great chain of being.” They have subconsciously accepted the idea of a natural hierarchy where humans sit atop the pyramid of the earthly realm followed by lions, elephants, puppy dogs, kittens and whatever animal is the next cutest after kittens.

This is to be expected when a foundational idea like the “great chain of being” is reinforced through religious institutions, the media and the mechanisms of society itself. To change this worldview, Fox contends, humans must begin to expand their sense of identification and their sense of self. Such a change is the topic of a whole other blog post and, most likely, not going to happen anytime soon.

David Lawlor was a writer in the Development department. His environmental activism stems from an affinity for nature and the deep ecology philosophy espoused by the Norwegian philosopher, Arne Naess.