Written by: Nicole Karyll Tan & Angela Tiongson
Illustrated by: Sophia Dumlao
What’s the first thing that you look for when choosing a house pet? One might be particular about a certain breed, even going as far as interbreeding like Goldendoodles: a mix between Golden Retrievers and Poodles. Practical people might factor in the level of difficulty of taking care of a pet–taking into account how big they can grow. However, for most of us, it’s the level of adorableness or the fluffiness of its fur! There’s no denying that physical appearance can be a significant factor in our decision-making as well as in how we treat animals, but this concept does not only apply to house pets.
Have you ever looked at a moth sitting at the corner of your house and thought, “Oh! That moth has beautiful wings!” No one has probably ever said that about common house moths. In fact, when you type in the words: “Moths are…”, on Google, the auto-search “Moths are annoying pests” would come in second. If that’s the case, how come no one has ever said that about butterflies? They’re both in phylum Arthropoda and are both in order Lepidoptera.1 The only actual difference between Moths and Butterflies is their behavioral patterns in which moths are nocturnal—they are more active at night—while butterflies are diurnal; they are active during the day.2
The moment we see those bright multi-colored wings of butterflies, we’re immediately entranced by their beauty like pirates hypnotized by a siren’s singing. In movies, you’d see children follow butterflies and try to catch them in a jar while other people would buy butterfly growing kits to watch them throughout their growth stages. Meanwhile, moth-growing kits don’t even exist. With this, we ask the question, “Why are certain animals treated better than others?” Believe it or not, pretty privilege exists even in the animal world!
Pretty privilege affects several factors in the survival of the species in both subjective and objective ways. Subjectively, we generally prefer prettier animals, thus, we subject them to higher moral regard and protection than less conventionally attractive animals.
In a research conducted by the Iscte – University Institute of Lisbon, people were asked to give a 1 to 7 rating for animals using eleven categories including the species’ perceived dangerousness, intelligence, acceptability for humans to consume the animal, level of care and protection humans felt for the species and its level of attractiveness.3 Researchers discovered that animals seen as adorable are given more care and protection than animals that are less adorable which is why more physically appealing species are most likely to survive better than less attractive species. In fact, over 56 species of moths went extinct since 1914 while new species of butterflies are continuously being discovered.4
On the other hand, pretty privilege has affected the survival of species objectively like in natural selection because of genetic variation.5 Certain physical traits of species may be advantageous for their survival compared to other traits, determining their survivability against predators and their likeliness to mate and form bonds with other species.
Rather than a dark-scaled apex predator with its full set of serrated teeth waiting for you at the doorstep, we usually prefer to be greeted by a fluffy, golden-furred bestie wagging its tail in your presence. It’s really no surprise that we prefer animals that are aesthetically appealing or “cute.” Cuteness could be thought of as the degree to which an infantile or youthful feature is attractive. This quality is subjective because there are some animal features that most of us just can’t get enough of.
The secret lies in the Kindchenschema or the baby schema, proposed by ethologist Konrad Lorenz, which pertains to a set of infantile physical features which encourage caretaking behavior from us.6 The baby schema is often associated with a large head, a round face, a high and protruding forehead, large eyes, and small nose and mouth. Alligators and other known reptiles fit this description by several lightyears, so, sorry gators, it’s not you, it’s me.
It is no wonder how baby cats and dogs manage to draw out the “awww” from even the most passive and stone-cold individuals. Several recent studies have indicated that baby schema traits are consistently favored over less infantile facial configuration. Most importantly, this effectuates a positive or affectionate behavioral response which increases our willingness to care and protect, as well as eliminate aggression towards them.7
This attitude manifests unfavorably in terms of animal conservation efforts. Studies have investigated the influence of animal attractiveness on conservation decision-making. Such investigations have been conducted in places where animals run free from domestication and where pretty privilege lies in favor of species such as gazelles, giraffes, and zebras. In a study by de Pinho et al in the Amboseli National Park, southern Kenya, it was found that ugliness had been a strong variable in the community’s sentiments for the local removal of elephants, hyenas, buffalos, and rhinoceros.8 However, they had also found that perceptions of “ugly” species could change through the community’s direct exposure to those animals.
Pretty privilege, in the human context, deals with conventionally attractive individuals who are often put on a pedestal than those who equally have the same set of skills or even over more qualified individuals. This social dynamic is projected in the animal world as well, which is exemplified in the movie “Back to the Outback.” People were depicted as worshippers of animals that fit the baby schema. One of the characters, Pretty Boy, the cute but obnoxious Koala, often garnered favorable reactions and idolism from human fans and animals alike. However, Maddie, the poisonous snake with a heart of gold, was used to being on the receiving end of violence and aggression when encountered by humans and some animals.
Many would say that this is a shallow mindset, but we’ve all experienced being hypnotized by the allure of exceptionally drop-dead gorgeous people. At that point we can’t help but feel the urge to befriend them and look past all of their imperfections. However, this isn’t an excuse to dismiss the efforts and importance of other individuals who may not fit the conventional attractiveness. If you look up prominent inventors and scientists, chances are you’ll probably find some of them unattractive, no hate. Nevertheless, their findings have fueled science and technology in the present, so jokes on us.
Likewise, animals unfit for the baby schema or other measures of attractiveness are equally precious to our environment. Houseflies, earthworms, lizards, and the like each have their own role in the ecosystem. Some of which are decomposers that bring back nutrients to the soil from rotting fruits or corpses, doing the dirty work nobody really wants to do. Apart from their ecological importance, hyenas, rhinoceros, and elephants have their own majestic allure that we can learn to appreciate; only a few binges of documentaries from the national geographic channel will send us running to rally for their conservation.
In the eyes of man and nature, there is no denying that pretty privilege exists among animals whereby such privilege grants them not only recognition, but also care, protection, and survival. The visual appeal of animals such as butterflies, domesticated cats and dogs, as well as wild gazelles, giraffes, and zebras have more or less influenced a community’s willingness to support their conservation efforts. While unpopular animals with unpopular features have been subject to dismissal, much less, their removal. However, with respect to the processes of natural selection and evolution, these “unattractive” animals might adapt changes and evolve into “prettier” versions of themselves as a survival mechanism. It might be a far cry but that is the beauty of nature. Nevertheless, whether it is a matter of change in their genome or a change in our perception, we must strive for the conservation of all living things and recognize their individual importance.
- Borgi M, Cirulli F. 2016. Pet Face: Mechanisms Underlying Human-Animal Relationships. Frontiers in Psychology. 7. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00298. [accessed 2019 Jun 3]. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4782005/.
- Brosch T, Sander D, Scherer KR. 2007. That baby caught my eye… Attention capture by infant faces. Emotion. 7(3):685–689. doi:10.1037/1528-35220.127.116.115.
- Critters C. 2019 May 5. The Similarities, Differences, and Environmental Niches of the Moth and Butterfly (Lepidoptera). Crazy Plants Crazy Critters. https://crazycrittersinc.com/the-similarities-differences-and-environmental-niches-of-the-moth-and-butterfly-lepidoptera/.
- de Pinho JR, Grilo C, Boone RB, Galvin KA, Snodgrass JG. 2014. Influence of Aesthetic Appreciation of Wildlife Species on Attitudes towards Their Conservation in Kenyan Agropastoralist Communities. Festa-Bianchet M, editor. PLoS ONE. 9(2):e88842. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0088842. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3925186/.
- How are gene variants involved in evolution?: MedlinePlus Genetics. 2021 Aug 5. medlineplusgov. https://medlineplus.gov/genetics/understanding/mutationsanddisorders/evolution/#:~:text=Genetic%20variations%20that%20alter%20gene.
- Lepidoptera – Butterflies, Moths | Wildlife Journal Junior. 2020. Nhpbsorg. https://nhpbs.org/wild/lepidoptera.asp.
- MD AC, FAAN. 2022 Jan 28. Why People Care More About Beautiful Animals Than Ugly Ones | Psychology Today. wwwpsychologytodaycom. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/animals-and-us/202201/why-people-care-more-about-beautiful-animals-ugly-ones.
- Moths. 2023. Butterfly-conservationorg. [accessed 2023 Feb 4]. https://butterfly-conservation.org/moths.