The Animal Affinity Matrix
Did you hear the news about the woman in England who was picked up on a security camera throwing a live cat into a garbage bin? Her motives remain unclear and the cat was rescued before it went to the landfill, but the story generated so much outrage that the cops had to post guards at her house to prevent a lynch mob from “doing the same thing to her.”
Now I’ll admit that throwing your neighbour’s cat in the garbage is a pretty stupid thing to do. And I’m terrified by the amount of animal cruelty that goes on, considering that virtually every serial killer got his start on animals.
So I started thinking.
Now if that woman had been spotted throwing a snake or a rat into the bin she would have, if noticed, been viewed as doing a public service. After all, they carry disease and have fangs.
It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out that there is a hierarchy of animals and it’s OK to throw some in the garbage and it’s not OK to do that to others.
It works like this. If you’re cute, fuzzy and harmless you can pretty much rest easy. No one is going to bother you and if they do, you will at least have the consolation of knowing that there will be huge outrage.
Also, if you are ugly and large but show some indication that you like people or have a spark of intelligence, you are guaranteed to be popular. Whales and orang-utans are in this category. Being in that category doesn’t ensure that people won’t bother you, but a lot of people are willing to fight for you, and I pretty much mean that literally.
In fact there is a whole continuum of animal likability and it’s very complicated. Cuteness and intelligence are big factors, but equally important is your relationship with humanity. For example, baby panda bears are cute and fuzzy. I have no information about their intelligence, but as far as their relationship to humanity, it is totally benign. All they do is eat bamboo and look cute. So they are pretty much at the top of the list along with puppies and kittens. No one hates them. Or likes to eat them.
That’s the problem that little lambs have. They are also cute and fuzzy, but they have a different relationship with people so a lot of times they don’t get to grow out of their cute and fuzzy stage.
Similarly, baby hyenas are fairly cute. But they remind us too much of their parents to rank very high on the scale. In fact you can graph it like this:
Animal Affinity Matrix
|A. Ugly & Harmless||C. Cute & Harmless|
|B. Ugly & Dangerous||D. Cute & Dangerous|
“A” creatures are things like slugs and worms. They give us the creeps but don’t bother us unless we step on them on the sidewalk.
“B” creatures are very unlucky. They are things like snakes and spiders and scorpions. No one likes them.
“C” creatures are everyone’s favorites—puppies, kittens, panda bears.
“D” creatures are things like hippopotamus and killer whales. As long as they are under control we like them.
My technology skills do not permit me to make a three dimensional matrix, which is needed to portray the additional complicating factor of the relationship of the animal with humans. So for example, an ugly and dangerous animal like a shark or a fugu fish can enjoy a slightly higher level of esteem because they taste good. Or an ugly and harmless animal such as an octopus can get promoted above the slugs and other gastropods of the world by being able to predict the outcome of football games.
And it can work the other way, too. I’ve already mentioned that things can end very badly for a cute and fuzzy animal who happens to taste good. Such as a lamb.
In summary, if you are an animal, you are always better off if you are cute rather than ugly and harmless rather than dangerous. But to make sure, you better not have more value dead than alive. If you manage all those things, you are pretty much assured of a life of comfort and pampering or at least being allowed to exist in peace.
I suppose that it’s rather hubristic for a human to casually categorize the animal kingdom in such a selfish way, i.e., only in terms of utility, functionality and appearance.
But let’s face it, that’s pretty much the way the human race looks at the world.
The big challenge is to figure out how to integrate humans into the matrix. Evaluating animals solely on the basis of how they look to us or how useful they are to us implies that humans are superior and are entitled to make those kinds of judgement. After all, when you are raising them to kill and eat them, or exterminating them for your safety or comfort, you do feel fairly entitled along those lines.
But how do we account for the fact that some animals appear to outrank humans? To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever threatened to kill the local butcher because he led a few lambs to the slaughter. But the headlines tell us that a woman received death threats for endangering a cat.
This isn’t an isolated instance. I remember when I saw Road Warrior. About one hundred humans die in that movie, most of them in a spectacular Ben Hur sort of way. Each dismemberment, crushing, impaling or sailing through the air was generally greeted by mutters of “cool” and “oh yeah” from the audience. Until Max’s dog gets shot by an arrow. You don’t even see it, you just see the guy point the bow and then you hear the dog yelp.
That scene elicited a collective gasp, groan and a few “you son of a bitches” from the audience. Mayhem involving humans is good clean fun. Involve a dog and you have stepped over the line.
I’m willing to admit that there are cute, ugly harmless and dangerous humans and that there are also humans of varying utility and functionality.
But I still can’t figure out how they work into the Animal Affinity Matrix.