Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Seen as cute or creepy: Why humans love some species, loathe others




Seen as cute or creepy: Why humans love some species, loathe others

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Male giant panda Jiao Qing eats bamboo at the Zoologischer Garten zoo in Berlin on April 5. Paul Zinken/dpa/AFP

Seen as cute or creepy: Why humans love some species, loathe others

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.

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 towards their conservation, while others draw little more than disgust?

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

Size, intelligence, behaviour, 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,” said Hal Herzog, emeritus professor at West Carolina University’s Department of Psychology.

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 six foot long, 150lb 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 around the steams and lakes they live in – which is just about everywhere.

Yet, like maggots, rats and snakes, the main instinct they inspire in humans is revulsion.
‘Learned’ disgust

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.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
A woman looks at a Chinese giant salamander at the China International Conservation festival in Zhangjiajie, central China’s Hunan province, on December 10, 2005. AFP

“In terms of threat to humankind, disease and illness are bigger than being attacked by an animal,” he said.

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.

See also: Jaws for sharks.

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

Take the main being in Alien, for example.

“Seeing the one from the first film that had that mucus-y drawl dripping from the alien’s mouth . . . sensitises people to disgusting things,” Davey said.

Nor is it just the public at large who are liable to “speciesism”, or discrimination against other species in favour of our own.

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.

And popular species make money in return, according to Christo Fabricius from WWF – a conservation group indelibly linked to its panda logo.

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

Not that favouring 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,” said Legendre.

But such species can become a victim of their own popularity.

One recent study suggested that a “virtual” presence of wild animals such as elephants and tigers – be that on computer screens, T-shirts or in children’s books – can fool people into thinking they are more common in the wild than they really are.

The populations of most megafauna – from hippos to giraffes and gorillas – remain in peril.

Then there’s the risk of poaching.

The rarer the species “the more value they provide for traditional medicine, for trophy hunting, and therefore they are poached more often,” said Franck Courchamp, an ecologist at France’s National Centre for Scientific Research.

So the next time you see a picture of a Giant Chinese Salamander, remember that there’s more to saving Earth’s wild species than looks.

MOST VIEWED

  • ‘Potential shield’ for virus hangs in balance

    The World Health Organisation (WHO) suspended trials of the drug that US president Donald Trump has promoted as a coronavirus defence, fuelling concerns about his handling of the pandemic that has killed nearly 100,000 US citizens. Trump has led the push for hydroxychloroquine as a potential

  • Gov’t rolls out stimulus to keep businesses afloat

    The government has introduced the fourth round of stimulus measures aimed at ensuring economic and social stability during the outbreak of the Covid-19 disease. The move, which was announced on Tuesday, is designed to help businesses, factories and enterprises to stay afloat while reducing the

  • E-cigarette back in spotlight amid virus pandemic

    The Ministry of Health’s Department of Communicable Disease (DCD) department has released a video about the effects of smoking, while the NGO Cambodia Movement for Health (CMH) warned against the use of electronic cigarettes or vape. The short video clip that was posted on

  • Por Sen Chey woman murdered

    Por Sen Chey district police are searching for a suspect who robbed and killed a woman in a rented room in Samraong Kraom commune in Phnom Penh at 6:30pm on Monday. Deputy district police chief Chea Sovann told The Post on Tuesday that the victim,

  • Police chief: remove all roadblocks

    National Police chief Neth Savoeun warned Phnom Penh and provincial police chiefs to remove all roadblocks, saying that traffic police officials in some provinces had tightened traffic law implementation against guidelines. In a leaked voice message which was shared on social media on Tuesday, Savoeun

  • Man held for violating daughter and niece

    Kandal Anti-Human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection Department officers sent a man to the provincial court on Tuesday after arresting him the day before for allegedly molesting his daughter and niece in Sa’ang district. Department chief Ros Savin said the 30-year-old construction worker was questioned