Monday, September 1, 2014

Cute Animals, Neoteny and Rights

The other day while I was finishing watching Season 8 of Supernatural, I noticed that my dog suddenly seemed very interested in something on the carpet. Well unlike Robb Stark, I make a point of paying attention to what my direwolf is trying to tell me. For someone with a pretty small brain the dog notices more than you might think. I halted the DVD and went to see what the dog was watching. It turned out to be a rather large spider. So I moved the dog away from it. Now usually I would have just killed the spider. But having read the recent special Time magazine issue on animals and how we think of them I decided against that. I retrieved some paper towels. I carefully picked up the spider and dropped it outside. Would I extend such mercy to a housefly? Doubtful. I'm not familiar with the exact details of the different habitats, hygiene and dietary habits of spiders and flies. However, when I see a fly I immediately think disease, dirt, filth and nastiness. A fly vomits on its food before eating it, eats fecal material, and most importantly looks disgusting to me. A spider also appears alien but does not immediately and automatically bring up to me all the images of decay and filth that a fly does. So it was easier for me to save the spider. Any fly that enters my house is going to be almost immediately swatted or chemically poisoned. Is that fair or logical? Probably not.

The Time issue pointed out some things that have intrigued me. People walk or drive down the streets in their neighborhood or their local university central campus and see squirrels running all over the place, jumping from tree to tree, roof to roof, playing, frolicking, hiding food or digging for food and occasionally making a nuisance of themselves. Few people are bothered by this. Many people think it's cute, especially in the fall. Some people will even put out food for squirrels or try to convince squirrels to approach them for food. But if you replace "squirrel" in the above sentence with "rat" most Americans would be physically disgusted. Nobody in their right mind puts out food for rats. And if you saw rats routinely running across the street or jumping from your neighbor's roof to yours you'd probably soon be looking for a new place to live, provided you had the resources to make it happen. Why is this? They're both rodents. Why do we have disgust for one simply because it has smaller eyes, lacks a furry tail and has more prominent or even frightening looking teeth? Why does the squirrel get such good PR when in some aspects it's just a furry tailed rat? Why do the words "dirty" and "rat" almost always go together as an insult? Does anyone call informers "squirrels"?
In part the answer is something called neoteny. We tend to be hardwired to respond positively to juvenile characteristics. Things like large eyes, big heads, and weak chins (at least in our own species and most mammals) may cause us to think of the possessor as "cute" or "young" and/or trigger protective responses. Creatures that retain some of these characteristics to adulthood might be more successful living with humans. This certainly seems to have been the case with dogs. When a creature lacks these things, is non-mammalian or has other characteristics that override any "positive" traits (like for example a long nasty looking rat tail) we might have trouble extending empathy and sympathy. As pointed out in the Time issue, Michael Vick horrified people not only by investing in and attending dog fight events but also by electrocuting, hanging or otherwise killing dogs that had lost too often, were old, or were considered bad investments. If Vick had invested in or invented some new rat poison product which killed 10000 times as many rats as dogs, few people outside of PETA would have noticed or cared. He would not have gone to prison or have become a target of disgust and protest. I understand that but to be fair I also have to admit that these feelings are logically incoherent. Presumably the rat who ate poison and died from internal bleeding, organ failure, suffocation or heart attacks wanted to live just as badly as the dog that was electrocuted, shot or hanged. It just happens to be the rat's misfortune that it has a face only another rat could love. So the other part of the equation could just be "speciesism" for lack of a better word. The more something resembles us, the more likely we are to extend empathy to it. Insects and arachnids are just out of luck, looking incredibly different than humans in particular and mammals in general. Few will describe them as cute or cuddly at any stage of their existence.

These things are hardwired in humans but they are also very much culturally based. The picture of the rats drinking milk comes from Rajasthan, India where apparently the rat has some sort of religious status. And there are several present day cultures across the world where the dog is considered food for consumption as much as it is considered a pet. I find these things incredibly disgusting and even immoral but that's my own cultural bias isn't it. Perhaps some day we (Americans) will look at the routine killing of animals we currently consider vermin to be morally challenged behavior. I don't know. So although human existence in and of itself means that some animals will die it might be wise to at least examine your actions where you have a choice. If you can avoid killing an animal when you don't have to isn't that a good thing? 


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