I originally wrote this article for my Conservation Biology class; it has been reformatted for publication in The Dickinsonian.
If you asked me what influenced my passion for sustainability, I’d probably tell you about the nature camp where I spent most of my summers. From kindergarten to my senior year of high school, I got the chance to run around a nature preserve learning about different environmental topics. One of my fondest memories of camp was getting to interact with the animals they hosted, including hissing cockroaches, snakes, and a temperamental Russian tortoise. My family and friends loved hearing stories about my field trips to the National Zoo, where I got to see the majestic elephants, regal lions, and the cute panda cubs. But when I would tell people about letting Sam, the camp’s black rat snake, slither around my shoulders, I observed reactions that ranged from a subtle cringe to a full body shudder. I couldn’t understand why—I found him pretty cute, even when I had to feed him freeze-dried mice and got a peek into the snake digestive process. Why couldn’t anyone else see how awesome snakes were?
It turns out that the question of why certain animals receive the spotlight underlies much of the conservation field. Researchers in France surveyed participants in an animal adoption program on the reasons why they had chosen to support their animal. They found that participants were more likely to donate money to animals that displayed more human characteristics . These characteristics could include physical traits such as the shape of the animal or the way they move. The latter trait explains why people are so snake averse; people tend to get disgusted by thin, smooth, legless reptiles, which look as different from a human as you can get . Even more compelling is the way that animal behavior can influence our conservation preferences. When animals display “high cognitive ability, prosocial behavior, and ability to suffer or experience pain,” according to Researcher Lucy Jajub, we experience a desire to empathize and protect them.
Research has found that certain “charismatic” species were more popular adoption choices with individuals—even more of a factor than the species’ status on the IUCN Red List, which is the leading resource for species’ extinction status . Charismatic species include conservation favorites such as lions, dolphins, and of course, pandas .When these animals receive all the popular support and funding, others who aren’t as “cute” or “cool” get left out, even when it comes to general research. According to the International Journal of Conservation, less than 10% of the work submitted concerns invertebrates, even though they make up a large majority of the animal kingdom.
This way of thinking is dangerous, especially when considering how many species were projected to lose in the next few decades. Is there a way to retrain our attitudes and beliefs toward wildlife? Can we find the empathy to protect the species most vital to the Earth’s survival—not just the ones we think are “cute”?
The research and I agree: one of the best ways to increase appreciation and awareness about traditionally “gross” or “scary” animals is to interact with them. Researchers in Slovakia had half of a fourth-grade class listen to a lesson about snails, while the other half got to see and touch live ones. Both groups then filled out an anatomical drawing of a snail. The results showed that the children who worked with the live animals made more accurate drawings and reported more knowledge of snails after the activity. But the most telling result was that students who interacted with the live snails had a lower disgust score than those who simply learned about them.
Hands-on experience with the wider natural world can play a role in developing a love for all animals. The literature on nature-based education programs shows that while lectures with pictures of animals can increase knowledge, personal experience with nature can influence students’ concern about ecological issues. Additionally, students reported higher feelings of self-confidence and empathy towards nature, which made them want to participate in more programs. This passion has the potential to last their whole lives (I would know). The aforemenetioned animal adoption program research results show that adults who felt more connected to nature were more likely to adopt species that were more distant from humans.
It is clear that the animals we find scary or gross deserve more conservation love. They perform vital functions for our ecosystem and have just as much right to protection as our friend the panda. So next time you get scared of a snake or a snail, give me a call and I’ll introduce you to some I know.