A new paper in the journal Biodiversity Conservation suggests that anthropomorphism -- the attribution of human characteristics to anything other than a human being -- could become a powerful tool in promoting public support for animal conservation. Specifically, the researchers see potential for helping less popular species.
At present, anthropomorphism in conservation is limited to social, intelligent animals, such as chimpanzees, polar bears and dolphins. According to the research, this would imply that other species are not worthy of conservation because they are not like humans in the 'right' ways.
However, by making conservationists more aware of how people construct anthropomorphic meanings around species and how they engage with species and attribute value to their characteristics – e.g. people may attribute personhood or emotions to species that they play with, such as pets or even livestock – they can create conservation programmes which speak to people through their cultural expectations and emotional connections.
Writing about a viral video of a crow sledding on a jar lid, Lepisto explained the benefits of anthropomorphism:
Anthropomorphizing brings us out of our selfish prioritization of human needs. It helps us connect to the world of species around us. Human compassion for dolphins or pandas makes these animals the poster children of the environmental movement. To a great extent, our love for, and joy in, the animals around us fuels our efforts to protect them.
However, there are negative consequences to anthropomorphism, as well, as DeFranza notes is the case with the adorably cute Slow Loris:
The videos, one showing young slow loris being tickled and another featuring a loris clutching a cocktail umbrella, have received millions of views on YouTube and have become viral sensations but, animal-rights activists say, they hide a grisly truth: International trade in the endangered species that inevitably leads to their death.
In 2009, Mother Jones also noted the challenges facing the Slow Loris:
The Slow Loris is a case of an animal being too cute for its own good. Besides having a babyish set of huge eyes, the Loris is furry, small, quiet, and apparently enjoys being tickled. The animal is prized as a pet, and shipments (often to Japan) of hundreds of Lorises have been intercepted. The fact that the Loris's instinct, upon stress, is to curl up into a ball makes it easy to transport, though often poachers will remove the Loris's teeth as a precaution. When not sold as pets, Lorises are hunted for use in traditional Asian medicines and like many other arboreal species, are threatened with habitat loss due to agriculture and logging.
The problem is seen to be so serious by some conservationists, that they asked Google to remove the Slow Loris videos:
Dr Nekaris is now calling on YouTube to take down the loris clips, which conservationists believe promote an illegal trade. Mr Shepherd said: "Lorises are still traded openly in Indonesian markets and the YouTube clips only increase the demand. Tackling this trade should be an urgent priority for wildlife-enforcement agencies. The penalty should be greater than simply confiscation of the animal.
Michael Graham Richard also wrote on TreeHugger about the human bias towards cute animals and how this is a problem for conservation.
Our human biases make us prefer certain animals over others, which is fine for pets, but not a good idea when it comes to conservation and the protection of endangered species:
It almost seems like we should make an effort to specifically target ugly species for conservation to try to compensate for our bias, but that can be hard as raising money from donations is a lot harder if all you can put on your press materials are pictures of ugly (or even just very bland-looking) animals.
It would be an interesting project to see how photographers, designers or activists could create campaigns, memes or videos to support some of the many "ugly" or "boring" species that are threatened or endangered.