Friday, March 1, 2013

The Bambi Factor

In news from Alaska, one state senator is proposing a bounty on sea otters.  He contends that they pose a threat to shellfish beds and that it is prudent to slow the population growth.  The smart money is on the sea otters.  Not only are they protected under federal law, but they are so cute that countless citizens will take their side.  No matter how justifiable the argument might be, it’s a losing battle.

We see the same reaction when deer invade a neighborhood or geese settle near an airport runway.  In these cases wild animals have become a nuisance and pose a danger of disease or damage to autos and airplanes.  It is reasonable to take steps to avert the problems, but reason takes a back seat to the impulse to protect them from harm or distress.  Advocates tell us to love nature and live in harmony with its creatures.  Deer are beautiful animals with big brown eyes that melt our hearts.

Similarly when Americans hear that horsemeat is being mixed with beef in Europe, they don’t recognize it as a labeling or economic issue, horsemeat as a less expensive substitute.  Instead they react with disgust at the thought of eating a horse.  “Yet horse meat, which is much cheaper than beef, has been eaten happily for decades by some in France who appreciate both the savings and the taste.”  It’s a matter of false labeling, not one of tainted product.  When I lived in Korea, I saw dog meat sold in butcher shops.  That was many years ago and I don’t know if the practice continues, but it reinforces how we are swayed by our prejudices in favor of more appealing animals.  Perhaps it should be called “the Bambi Factor.”

Ask someone if they would rather have a rat or squirrel break into their attic, and they will pick the squirrel every time, based purely on the fact that squirrels are cuter.  The right answer is neither.  They are both wild rodents capable of causing considerable damage.  Why do people feed squirrels, deer and geese thereby attracting these pests to their yards and nearer to their houses?

Critical thinking can be compared to driving a car.  You need power to keep going and controls, like steering and brakes, to keep you on the road.  People need emotions to give them energy and keep them dedicated to a task, but they need logic and reason to keep them from ending up in the figurative ditch.  In society, every time we stand by while an argument based on emotional reactions drives policy, we are headed for trouble, usually in the form of wasted resources, time and money.

So, as this article points out:  "Experts believe more money is probably being spent to save the giant panda than any other species in the world."  And if mosquitoes had big brown eyes, there would probably be outrage against swatting them.  It’s the Bambi Factor.

1 comment:

  1. Another example comes from the book "Collapse" by Jared Diamond who also wrote "Guns, Germs, and Steel." He argues that it is more ecologically responsible for Australians to raise kangaroos than sheep for meat and fur, because they are less damaging to soil and plants. One problem he relates: "The US explicitly forbids the importation of kangaroo meat because we find the beasts cute, and because a congressman's wife heard that kangaroos were endangered." The species harvested is not. They are "abundant pests" and the government regulates hunting them. (p. 391)


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