The brutal killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe by an American dentist has been met with a torrent of anger worldwide. Many celebrities, including Judd Apatow, Mayim Bialik, Olivia Wilde, and Ricky Gervais, have weighed in to express their disgust. The deceased lion was trending on Twitter.
In a now-viral video of Tuesday’s episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live, late-night host Jimmy Kimmel was so upset he nearly broke down in tears.
Intuitively, the uproar over the lion’s murder makes sense. The story is awful.
But it does raise a tricky question: Why, exactly, are people so upset about the death of this specific animal?
To answer this question, ThinkProgress consulted Ernest Small, a Ph.D with the Canadian government who specializes in biodiversity. Small has recently published two peer-reviewed papers on the topic of why humans favor some animals over others.
People don’t like most species of animals
Small writes that “most humans are… not just ignorant of but indifferent to almost all of the species on the planet.” In fact, people are “biophobic” meaning they are “slightly to extremely negative towards the majority of species they encounter.”
For example, “Amphibians are the most threatened of the groups of vertebrate animals with perhaps one-third of species on the verge of extinction.” But most people don’t really know or care about it because “most are unattractive.”
“A memorable Grimm’s fairy tale required a young girl to kiss a toad to find her Prince Charming, reflecting the disgust that most people have for these species,” Small writes.
Similarly, “the majority of the world’s threatened species are insects, but except for butterflies and bees, most are usually perceived very negatively.”
Instead, even most “animal lovers,” reserve their positive feeling about animals to those that “have characteristics valued by the human psyche.”
The animals that people do like
According to Small, “the public, politicians, scientists, the media and conservation organisations are extremely sympathetic to a select number of well-known and admired species, variously called flagship, charismatic, iconic, emblematic, marquee and poster species.” If you are curious about what animals qualify, just visit a zoo. Most, if not all of the animals there are “very useful, very attractive, or very entertaining.”
The kind of species that are favored by humans vary but certain characteristics are particularly helpful:
The most universally admired physical characteristic is size: huge creatures elicit great respect, whereas the majority of species, which are small, tend to be ignored. Glamorous appearance is critical for sympathetic attention, and there are numerous features such as colour and impressive architecture that contribute to what makes a species attractive.
There is a name for these kind of animals: “charismatic megafauna.” These animals “are usually at least the size of a large dog, and generally larger than a man. They are mostly very photogenic.”
Why Cecil generates so much emotion
“You can’t get much more charismatic than a lion,” Small noted in an interview with ThinkProgress. “Here we are as humans getting very excited about charismatic animals. We never think about all the pain we cause to billions of sentient creatures.”
Another helpful feature of Cecil: he has a name. Many of the traits we admire in animals are those that bear some similarity to humans. Lions already have plenty of human-like qualities, forward facing eyes and a strong parent-child bond for example. An actual human name is icing on the cake.
“We are blind to so much suffering that goes on with so many animals yet so cognizant of this,” Small said.
Despite studying the issue extensively as an academic, Small isn’t immune from the same feeling everyone else has about Cecil’s death. “I was disgusted frankly. If there was a lynch mob I’d probably join it,” he said, acknowledging the irony.
Selective outrage, Small posits, is human nature and is not limited to the animal world. For example, “If we see a baby being treated cruelly. If we see a wino or a bum who is in obvious need of help we tend to look the other way. It’s just our nature.”
Favoring a small number of animal species and ignoring most others is not without its advantages. The use of iconic animals is extremely important to the fundraising efforts of conservation groups. “Save-the-Tiger campaigns are popular, and have attracted considerable funds,” Small notes. In 2010, Leonardo di Caprio donated $1 million to save tigers. Funding like this can enable conservations of large areas of land that can end up benefiting more species than just tigers.
Small argues that we don’t need to “suppress” our empathy to animals like Cecil, but rather “moderate our prejudices with understanding for the value of all species, for the long-term welfare of humanity and our planet.”