What do Ugly Animal Contests Tell Us about Conservation?


The proboscis monkey does not rate highly in the 'cute' tables - but should that affect decisions regarding its preservation?

Andrew Tipp questions why society seems to prioritise the conservation of cute animals over ugly ones, and urges us to shift our focus to all endangered species, beautiful or otherwise......
animals we can easily anthropomorphise tug on our heartstrings

It’s pink, slimy and looks like a caricature of a sad, dribbling face. It is, of course, the humble blobfish. This bizarre-looking creature, which lives in deep water off the coast of Australia, recently won a competition held to find the ugliest animal in the world. 

But why was this significant, and why should we care? 

The competition matters because it says a lot about our relationship with endangered wildlife. The contest was organised by the Ugly Animal Preservation Society (UAPS), to raise the profile of vulnerable and endangered animals overlooked because of their looks. 

So what are these animals? Do we really treat wildlife conservation differently based on an animal’s appearance? And if we do, why we do it and how should we change?

Top of the pops 

The poor blobfish’s gelatinous mass has bobbed to the top of the ugly polls, but there are plenty of candidates close behind. New Zealand’s kakapo, Mexico’s axolotl, Borneo’s proboscis monkey and the Bolivian ‘scrotum’ water frog were all in the top ten of the world’s least aesthetically pleasing critters. 

And the list of unattractive-but-widely-ignored wildlife doesn’t end there. On the UAPS’s website you’ll find passionate defences of sturgeons, hagfish, earthworms and the unfortunately named purple pig-nosed frog

While the UAPS site and their competition are light-hearted in tone, there’s a deadly serious undertone - and one that reveals an awkward truth about our outlook on wildlife. And it’s a very simple trend. 

animals we can easily anthropomorphise tug on our heartstrings

When it comes to threatened species, we prioritise cute animals over ugly ones.

Awareness of attractive endangered animals is far higher than unattractive ones. The polar and panda bears of the world simply get the lion’s share of publicity - or should that be the sturgeon’s share? 

Seriously, how many charity appeals, billboards or fundraising drives have you seen in aid of the purple pig-nosed frog? 

Confronting natural prejudice

So why does this happen? Why is it necessary for groups like UAPS to promote the plight of these animals? There’s no one absolute reason, but it basically comes down to relatability; animals we can easily anthropomorphise tug on our heartstrings more than creatures that seem alien. The more we can see of ourselves in animals, the more we will empathise with them. And if they’re cute and furry and look like toys we’d give our kids to cuddle in their sleep, then they’re likely to be at the front of the conservation bandwagon. 

Don’t believe me? Check out the World Wildlife Foundation’s extinction status species directory. There are plenty of conservation A-listers, such as gorillas, tigers and orangutans. But how many initiatives do you see for the unappealing African wild dog, the spider monkey or the humphead wrasse?  

The phenomenon even extends to zoos, where big, attractive species are more likely to find a home, regardless of their conservation needs. Some cute, cuddly species even receive more resources than animals more vital to their environment.  

Obviously, there are granular levels of detail when it comes to deciding how much to spend on conserving one species compared to another. With some animals, it can even get political - governments might spend incredible amounts of money to save an animal that has national symbol status. 

Adopting extreme positions 

Some people have reacted extremely to this imbalance - to the point of arguing that expensive, endangered species like the panda be left to face extinction. Commentators have claimed the amount of money spent per bear is scandalous, and that the species is ‘lazy’, ‘stupid’ and ‘unworthy’ of saving. 

These articles are controversial. But their authors don’t mean it. They just want a serious conversation about our values when it comes to conservation. By going to the extreme, they move the conversation to the middle ground. 

So what can we do about all the poor, ignored ugly species in the world - many of which need our help? Well, the answer isn’t to petition toy manufacturers to start making cuddly kakapo dolls, or Build-a-Blobfish stores. We just need to individually do our bit to raise awareness of the more unloved animals around the world. We need to realise that just because an animal lacks human appearance, traits and mannerisms it doesn’t mean it’s undeserving of our attention. 

Warm-blooded, fuzzy and cute-faced mammals shouldn’t take priority over reptiles, insects and birds - even though they might be more cuddly. 

An increase of interest in animal activism and conservation is a healthy foundation to this. There are lots of animal volunteering projects and plenty of conservation media content to engage us, shape our interest and enable us to get involved in hands-on work. 

The idea that we prefer attractive animals over less attractive ones isn’t new. But competitions to raise awareness of ugly endangered creatures is relatively new, refreshing and a good thing. It’s a timely reminder to address our wildlife prejudices before it’s too late.    

Andrew Tipp is a writer, blogger and editor working in digital publishing. He’s spent more than a year volunteering and travelling around the world, and is interested in environmental and sustainability issues. He has written online for conservation, green living and renewable energy websites.

Image courtesy of www.shutterstock.com