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The Animal Affinity Matrix

September 1, 2010

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.


30 Comments leave one →
  1. Len Skuta permalink
    September 2, 2010 1:37 am

    Where do I stand? Old ,ugly and not pleasant to be with. Look for me in the nearest garbage dumpster.

  2. September 2, 2010 2:16 am

    As I respond to your amusing but also serious article, my cat Bobb eyes my reaction, hoping for my amenable smile. My Labrador Retriever, with her large brown eyes and soft ears, lies at my feet, waiting for approval.

    In the freezer is chicken, turkey, and salmon.

    Never will lamb be there. I cannot eat lamb, just thinking of their little faces and bodies.

    Your thesis is correct.

  3. September 2, 2010 3:37 am

    Very interesting analysis of our behavior concerning animals. Even though I am really busy right now, I read this entire post because you not only said interesting stuff, more importantly, you put all those darling and not so darling animal photos on your post! Loved it!

  4. September 2, 2010 3:51 am

    As I read your post, I was trying out all sorts of rival hypotheses:

    1) Have we somehow evolved to like animals based on how close genetically they are to us?
    Answer: We like Pandas more than bacteria, so perhaps yes. But we like ladybugs more than snakes, so No. Your matrix stands.

    2) Do we LEARN which animals to like and dislike, or is it imprinted in our brains through evolution?
    Answer: It seems that I LEARN that some animals can be cute and yet dangerous as well (your category D). And I LEARN that your category A is OK.

    But we seem to know instinctively, through some innate neural pattern, that your category B is to be avoided, and that C is OK.

    So your matrix still stands.

    3) What if you spouse appears to be in one category upon waking, and in another at dinner time? Does this disprove your matrix?

    • September 2, 2010 7:24 am

      Thanks for the analysis and you have hit on two areas that need further investigation! First, some people have pet tarantulas and snakes. How does that fit into the mix? (I think it says more about them than the matrix).

      With respect to your point 3, does the person change or does you perception of where they fit in the matrix change? I’d thought of adding pictures of some people to the matrix as well but didn’t want to ruffle any feathers!

      • September 2, 2010 2:10 pm

        I had the same reaction and thinking as Andreas, but he beat me to it. (Again on your blog, actually!) I’m just going to throw out an idea, building on Aristotle’s statement about diet in Book IX of “The History of Animals.” Perhaps diet has something to do with it, that we like animals we could eat and animals who like to eat what we eat.

        The panda-eating-bamboo thing doesn’t help that thesis, though apparently bamboo sap can be fermented.

  5. September 2, 2010 8:25 am

    A creature must be cute and innocent in order for its mistreatment to spark outrage. If the guy in the movie would have arrowed a human baby, audience reaction would have been identical. Our limbic system draws little distinction between human babies and cute animals.

    Had the British lady thrown her baby into the garbage, people would have been just as outraged. Had she attempted to dispose of her husband in like manner, on the other hand, she’d be safe from the lynch mob.

    Once human children have grown into adulthood, we enjoy watching them getting whacked, while cute animals retain protected human-baby status throughout their adulthood.

  6. September 2, 2010 8:30 am

    Ah! It’s all about perception. In my humble opinion, we are all animals and we all serve a purpose.

    • September 2, 2010 12:37 pm

      I agree we’re all animals, biologically speaking, but I’m far from convinced that we all serve a purpose.

      In order for me to believe, for instance, that hundreds of millions of people, cats, and dogs who lead short, miserable lives of unspeakable suffering “serve a purpose,” you’ll have to be more specific as to what such purpose might be exactly.

      Otherwise, you’re simply assigning universal purpose to everything that moves without anything to back it up other than a general philosophy based on nothing but wishful thinking.

      Attempting to explain to a sick and starving child in its last hours, or to a frightened puppy about to be euthanized because the animal shelter is overcrowded to the rafters, that their lives have “purpose” is bordering on the cynical.

  7. September 2, 2010 1:42 pm

    Really great, Tom. Funny and thoughtful as usual. Possibly there’s another parameter too: country of human. In the UK, for example, the dog shot off screen would have got the film banned or binned too.

  8. dafna permalink
    September 3, 2010 12:33 am

    yes, country of human can work both ways…

    “to pass a cat off as a hare” – insert rarebit recipe here

    Oh kittens, in our hours of ease
    Uncertain toys and full of fleas,
    When pain and anguish hang o’er men,
    We turn you into sausage then.

    Turtle Soup

    • September 3, 2010 7:37 am

      Thanks! I think we need a matrix with four dimensions. I’d forgotten about things like turtle soup.

  9. September 3, 2010 1:22 am

    Have you gotten this story yet?

    It is a long read, but this man had a very radical idea where people fit into the matrix.
    This is a bit long to slog through, but here is the guy’s manifesto:

    Click to access 0901_demands.pdf

  10. September 3, 2010 7:39 am

    Now that’s scary.

  11. September 3, 2010 4:04 pm

    This list was desperately needed! 🙂

  12. September 3, 2010 8:15 pm

    I’ve read that it has much less to do with looks and much more to do with how far away the animal in question is away from us on the evolutionary scale.

  13. September 4, 2010 12:51 am

    This was the first thing I thought of when I read your post today…

  14. September 4, 2010 3:45 am

    Grump, I love it!! We needed that in this thread.

    • September 5, 2010 11:00 am

      Who is that guy??

      • September 7, 2010 11:56 am

        Denis Leary is basically a walking diatribe from Boston. His act can grow a little tiresome but when he’s on he’s funny as hell.

  15. Dan permalink
    September 4, 2010 5:58 am

    Great post. By the way, did people really call out ‘you sons of bitches!’ during that scene in Road Warrior? Seems like an incredibly demonstrative and vocal audience. I feel like I’m about to learn some ethnographic fun fact about New Zealand movie audiences being the most participatory in the world…

    • September 5, 2010 10:58 am

      Yes it happened but it was in the US. I haven’t seen that many movies in different parts of the world but based on my limited observations US audiences are much more participatory than elsewhere. Clearly ethnographic field research is needed!

  16. September 4, 2010 7:07 am

    What is it about fur that makes creatures seem more appealing? Put fur on a sea slug, and it becomes cute.

    • September 5, 2010 10:59 am

      Yes, unless you make it giant size, then you have the lead in a horror movie.

  17. September 7, 2010 1:56 pm

    I loved the garden spider that lived up against our apartment, until my mom by accident disturbed her and she fell never to be seen again. We hope she just relocated and didn’t get smashed or something, but she lived a very productive life. The spider had a mate until she didn’t anymore (I think she prolly ate him ,or drank him, as it were). Now all that’s left are 2 big egg sacs which I check each day …’d think the spider was from freaking Charlotte’s Web.
    Anywho, that complicates the matrix all the more b/c for every critter you shuck into the garbage, there’s prolly someone who’d be “Nooooooooooo!!!” Then culture also has something to do with status. I heard somewhere that China revered rats due to intelligence, but some eat cats. Go figure.
    Great post!

    • September 7, 2010 3:50 pm

      Thanks for the comment–yes you’ve brought up yet another dimension that needs to be added to the matrix!

      PS–You’re probably right about the husband spider.

  18. September 9, 2010 10:57 pm

    I think the attitude toward the killing of the dog in Road Warrior comes from the idea that humans, because of their ability to think abstractly, are able to do wrong (behave unethically) and are therefore probably guilty of something and deserve some sort of punishment. On the other hand, a dog acts primarily on instinct and therefore can’t be guilty of anything, so the dog can’t deserve punishment in the way a human does. (Similar to killing a human baby.)

    Also, domestic animals like dogs have been bred for childlike qualities (google “neoteny”) so we feel more protective toward them.

    • September 10, 2010 9:04 am

      Thanks for the comment Annie. I think you are correct, especially because in that movie the dog had been portrayed all along as the only noble character because he didn’t have any of the characteristics of the people around him.

      I enjoyed visiting your most interesting website! Where do bootlace worms live? I wouldn’t want to meet one!

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