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How does the cuteness quotient play out in the animal community?

Some say that we, human beings, recognise cuteness from around the age of three. Through our social interactions with parents and society around us, we learn to recognise what is thought to be cute and what is not

Written by Ranjit Lal | New Delhi |
August 22, 2021 6:35:04 am
animals, animal kingdom, cute animals, animals and cuteness, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express, indian express newsRound eyes, chubby limbs, cuddly body — what’s not to love? (Photo: Ranjit Lal)

It’s a weapon that has been used since time immemorial by nearly every animal species including us, with devastating effect. Animals have used it on their own kind — and even on us, and we fall victim to it nearly every single time. And there’s a very simple reason why — it has survival value.

It’s the terrible “cuteness” bomb, which can reduce leathery boors to warm globs of sweet goo. The moment they confront a toothless, gurgling baby, extending its chubby arms towards them, its eyes enormous, its smile innocent, the deed is done! It needn’t be a human baby — a puppy or a kitten or an orangutan, bunny or tiger cub will do just as well, though maybe the line could be drawn at naked mole rat babies! If this is the effect that the C-bomb can have on iron men, you can imagine what it does to inherently tender-hearted women? Sure there are people who cringe at the mention of the “C” word and researchers working in animal labs who try to blank out its effects by giving their subjects hard cold numbers instead of names, as they conduct some of their experiments.

Some say that we, human beings, recognise cuteness from around the age of three. Through our social interactions with parents and society around us, we learn to recognise what is thought to be cute and what is not. That’s why your one-year-old toddler will happily put a slug into her mouth — not knowing that it is let us say “un-cute” (and probably tastes horrible), while your nine-year old will scream at the sight of one! So, it seems to be, at least among the baby fraternity, survival of the cutest. But I’m still not too sure if the cuteness bomb works as well in the animal community. Does a tigress favour the cutest in her litter, or simply the fittest? Usually, the runt in the litter is, if anything, cuter than its big bully siblings and evokes the most empathy because it is more helpless. But a tiger mom might just ignore her wobbly little weakling, sensing its chances of survival are minimal. Yet, watch a tiger mom lovingly lick her tiny cubs and you’ll begin to wonder again.

Like a nuclear device there are two distinct hard-wired effects the cuteness bomb has when it detonates. The first is instant — the need to protect the helpless squalling baby (animal or human) which is making those huge bug eyes at you, to take it into your arms and swear to protect it with your life. The second is the fallout — you begin to think about caring for the squalling, peeing, pooping, drooling, sleeping, gurgling tiny tot on a long-term basis. All of which spells parenting.

Way back in the 1940s, Konrad Lorenz described the features of what makes up for cuteness, calling it “kindenschema”, which evilly, sounds like scheming infants! So to be cute, you need to have a very large head, big forward facing bug eyes and tiny ears, set low in the face, chubby limbs and round face (dimples everywhere!), a soft cuddly body, and, of course, be gorgeously clumsy.

We are such suckers for these attributes that it seems when we first domesticated wolves, we unconsciously favoured pups which had more “baby-looking” eyes — not a normal feature of wolf pups. These were selectively bred, and now we have snub-nosed pugs and prima donna Pekinese, lounging in the arms of maternal galleons!

If anyone has been scheming about cuteness, it is us! Cuteness sells and don’t Walt Disney and company know that! Even the prestigious National Geographic magazine has exploited this. Cute creatures such as pandas and tiger cubs and baby gorillas featured in the stories get most of the donations for protection, leaving less cute creatures (like naked mole rats again!) to fend for themselves. Stuffed animal toys make beloved gifts for children and adults everywhere. And sometimes, “old-ugly-cuteness” sells even better: look at ET and Shrek! Some advertisers dress up child models as adults, and pet owners dress up pets as humans, thinking that is cute and not perverted!

Alas, we don’t seem to know when to stop! How many bindaas teenagers have had their dignity shredded by a loving grandparent who pinches their cheeks and squeals, “So cute, no?” And how many fully grown ferocious German shepherds have been praised by their “parents” in silly falsettos, “Good boy! Good girl!” The desire to infantilise goes far beyond its “use-by” date and frankly disrespects the recipient, whether human, canine or feline.

We have extended our cuteness mania to inanimate objects too: the VW Beetle was given circular headlights and a rounded shape to resemble a German soldier’s helmet. Millions of buyers worldwide instead thought “how cute is that!” Otherwise, the car probably would have tanked! Volkswagen quickly realised this and subsequent models became cuter and rounder! In this case, cuteness certainly promoted love over war!

(Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher)

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