When ‘cute’ is con­de­scend­ing

Ba­bies are cute, an­i­mals are smart, stun­ningly clever, un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated sur­vival­ist be­ings

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - IN­GRID NEWKIRK

Ev­ery morn­ing, a crow with just one foot comes to visit my of­fice in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

I hear her caw­ing nearby — I know she’s a she be­cause she had a very noisy baby last year — and I call out to her. She lands on my windowsill, and I put out her break­fast. She loves blue­ber­ries but hates falafel — which I learned af­ter she spat it out onto a man walk­ing be­neath the win­dow. Crows oc­ca­sion­ally eat baby squir­rels, so some­times, I pre­tend that I’m giv­ing her a baby squir­rel, but it’s ac­tu­ally a warm, soft bean bur­rito. She prob­a­bly thinks the red stuff in­side is stom­ach con­tents, but it’s re­ally just beans and tomato sauce.

One day, some­one saw my crow eat­ing her break­fast and said, “Aw, she is so cute!”

How of­ten do we per­ceive an­i­mals as cute, no mat­ter what they are do­ing, in­stead of re­flect­ing on their ex­pe­ri­ence? Af­ter all, here’s this one-footed crow some­how sur­viv­ing, avoid­ing elec­tri­cal wires and traf­fic and mean peo­ple in our con­crete city. She’s scav­eng­ing to feed her­self and her de­mand­ing off­spring. She ar­rives soaked to the skin in win­ter storms when it’s freez­ing out­side, and even in high winds, she has to cling to branches and fire es­capes with one foot. If she in­jures her other foot, she’s a goner.

She is do­ing so many im­pres­sive things that I couldn’t pos­si­bly do. She is a whole, adult in­di­vid­ual, with a dis­abil­ity and enor­mous chal­lenges; yet we of­ten in­fan­tilize such stun­ningly clever be­ings, gig­gle at them and think of them as just cute. It’s like call­ing a starv­ing refugee cute.

Usu­ally, what­ever an­i­mals do, it is thought­ful and clever, not just cute.

When a small dog who has no op­pos­able thumbs, none of our ad­van­tages, tries to drag a child’s plas­tic swim­ming pool into the house, it’s im­pres­sive. You can see the video on­line. The dog’s name is Gus. He is work­ing on this project be­cause he wants the pool in the house. Us­ing var­i­ous strate­gies and never say­ing never, he suc­ceeds. That’s prob­lem-solv­ing. When a jump­ing spi­der goes to an­other spi­der’s web and taps it in or­der to lure the sec­ond spi­der (who thinks she’s caught a fly) closer, is that cute? Not to the sec­ond spi­der, who gets eaten. It’s in­tel­li­gent. There’s ev­i­dence that jump­ing spi­ders learn this be­hav­iour and that they work out ex­actly which types of taps will trick the other spi­der and which won’t.

And when oc­to­puses fig­ure out how to use dis­carded co­conut shells as shel­ter, aren’t they be­ing not just cute but also clever? For them, it’s a mat­ter of sur­vival.

There are so many jaw-drop­ping ex­am­ples of an­i­mal in­ge­nu­ity: Squir­rels dig up and re­bury their food if they sus­pect that an­other squir­rel has watched them stash it. Pigs have tem­per­a­ture pref­er­ences and can learn through trial and er­ror how to turn on the heat in a cold barn if given the chance.

Rab­bit­fish, like geese, take turns stand­ing guard so that oth­ers can eat in safety. Prairie dogs talk to one an­other about preda­tors and get spe­cific — giv­ing de­tails about size, shape, colour and speed. Chick­ens will forgo a treat in or­der to get a larger re­ward later.

Cats, who rarely meow to com­mu­ni­cate with each other, in­vent a whole lan­guage of me­ows specif­i­cally to com­mu­ni­cate with hu­mans. Pi­geons, who re­mem­ber hu­man faces and rec­og­nize peo­ple who are nice to them, stay to­gether for life, and both par­ents share equally in nest­ing du­ties.

While we send probes into space to search for in­tel­li­gent life forms, we are of­ten obliv­i­ous to the ones all around us, right here on Earth — both on land and in the sea.

But if we wish to call our­selves think­ing an­i­mals, it’s time to move past cute when con­sid­er­ing other an­i­mals and on to words in­dica­tive of em­pa­thy and re­spect.

In­grid Newkirk is the founder and pres­i­dent of Peo­ple for the Eth­i­cal Treat­ment of An­i­mals.

Cats, who rarely meow to com­mu­ni­cate with each other, in­vent a lan­guage of me­ows to com­mu­ni­cate with hu­mans.


Who doesn’t love a cute an­i­mal? But In­grid Newkirk of PETA ar­gues we of­ten un­der­sell the in­ge­nu­ity of an­i­mals by writ­ing off their of­ten im­pres­sive ac­tions as noth­ing more than ’cute’.

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