Are we protecting beautiful animals more? Yes

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Beauty and morality

Endangered animals must be cute or endearing if they want to be the subject of a conservation campaign, according to the scientific literature. According to participants in a 2019 study published in the journal animalscute animals, like dolphins and koalas, deserve more moral consideration than less attractive species, like bats and wild boars.

Researchers at the University Institute of Lisbon came to this conclusion after asking 509 adults to look at 120 pictures of an animal on a white background. The participants then had to rate the animals – ranging from leachate and earthworms to cows and chimpanzees – on 11 aspects, including their dangerousness, their ability to think and feel, the acceptance of humans to eat the animal and the sense of protection it evoked .

These results are confirmed by the results of six studies conducted among 1662 people by Australian researchers. The latter explored the effect of physical attractiveness on our preferences for certain species, based on the fact that attractive people are more likely to be perceived as intelligent and competent than unattractive people. A phenomenon called attractiveness bias.

They also discovered that we attach greater moral value and purity to beauty, whether in people, animals, landscapes, or buildings. That is why we are more concerned with beautiful animals than with ugly animals, even the most dangerous ones.

Like children

One explanation sometimes given is that cute animals would remind us of human babies. A study published on this topic in 2014 suggested that animals with big eyes and soft facial features would trigger our parental instincts. Other researchers have concluded that the effect of facial appearance on cuteness is related to human interest in infants. Anthropozoologist James Serpell calls this the cute human response, which interprets the social behavior of animal companions in human terms.

However, not all beautiful animals are cute. For example, the monarch butterfly is considered magnificent, but does not arouse any parental reflex …

The Bambi effect

The second explanation is called the Bambi effect: an objection to the death of animals perceived as cute or adorable. The term is clearly inspired by the 1942 Walt Disney animated film, where the mother of the young peacock is killed by the hunter, leaving him alone and vulnerable. It is by virtue of this effect that groups of friends of animals sometimes come to oppose organizations that manage wildlife, at the risk of harming the rest of the ecosystem. For example, opponents of culling deer in Michel-Chartrand Park in Longueuil seem to forget that their excessive numbers threaten the habitat.

A study into the protection of koalas published in 2008 alluded to the Bambi effect, suggesting that to help the more aggressive and hostile wild animals become more loved, “sweeter” cartoons should be created for them.

In biology we actually talk about charismatic megafauna or charismatic species. The first term essentially denotes large mammals such as the lion, the African elephant, the humpback whale or the giant panda, all of which possess some human characteristics – real or perceived – such as intelligence. The authors of a review on the use of the term in science – and in the field of species conservation – consider that the charismatic potential of these species seems to be a decisive parameter in the definition of a conservation program and its promotion.


Studies, not surprisingly, agree that we are sensitive to beauty. We ascribe greater purity and morality to “cute” animals, and go so far as to attribute feelings to them, which in turn evokes a desire for protection. In other words, it is better to be beautiful if you are an animal who wants to arouse sympathy and attract funds. The deer of Longueuil could testify to this if they could speak.

Photo: SEPAQ

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