Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Why is "Faith," the walking dog, cute?

The story of Faith, the dog, who walks on her hind legs, has received a lot of attention lately.  After Faith was born with deformed front legs, she was taught to walk on her hind legs.  Very cute. 

Have you ever wondered why certain animals are popular?  It's because they have certain "human" characteristics:
  • Walking upright (on hind legs)
  • Baby faces--round heads with large eyes
  • Distinctive eyes--or masks
  • Black and white markings--like people dressed up
Walking upright

All birds walk on their hind legs, since they use their forelimbs to fly.  But most birds don't walk especially upright--their bodies are horizontal.

The few birds that do walk upright are stars.  First, there's the penguin.  Because they swim underwater, with their feet adapted for use as a rudder (along with the tail) at the rear of the body, they have to walk upright.  With their feet down by the tail, that's the only way they can walk. 

But they are surprisingly agile on land.  Besides walking upright, penguins can also locomote "on all fours."  It's called "tobogganing."  They push with their feet and "row" with their flippers.  Crossing long expanses of frozen sea ice, they often use both walking and tobogganing.   They can go the fastest on land when tobogganing.

Penguins are also popular because they have black and white plumage--like a starched shirt and tuxedo with "tails."

If that weren't enough, Adelie penguins also have a white eye ring, making their eyes very noticeable and distinctive.  A sort of white "mascara."

Another bird that's very popular in Asia is the red-crowned crane.  It's a bird of folklore and art, symbolizing long life and marital happiness.  The red-crowned crane has a more upright posture than most birds, plus plumage that's mostly black and white, like the penguin.  In addition, they have beautiful calls and stately mating dances.  Their popularity has given cranes an "ambassador" status for endangered wetland habitats.

And don't forget the bears, who get their popularity from walking upright--not from raiding food at your campsite.  The polar bear is perhaps the most popular, and it's...  white!  More biped bears.

Baby faces

A baby tugs at the heart strings because of it's large eyes and large, round head, with a small chin.  That's nature's way of making us instinctively want to care for dependent infants.  So animals with similar features seem cute.   Consider Disney cartoon characters--all with big heads and large eyes.   Animals like domestic cats, lorises, and koalas fit this stereotype.

The masked bandits

We've talked about the importance of distinctive eyes.  The more distinctive the better.  Consider the raccoon, or the panda--both with "masks."  And the panda, one of the most popular creatures on the planet, has the advantages of walking upright, black and white markings, and a mask.   Plus they are pretty placid, since they eat low-energy bamboo plants.  Not being fierce is just one more plus for public relations.

Dressing up

Besides having black and white plumage, other kinds of "dressing up" lead to popularity--especially if it's on the head.   That's where people do much of their "dressing up." 

Birds with crests tend to be more popular--such as the cardinal or jay.

And what about dogs with droopy ears?    The original dogs, which came from wolves, must have had upright, fierce ears.  So why do so many breeds of dogs, like spaniels or Labrador retrievers, have long, droopy ears?   I'd suggest two possible reasons:  droopy ears look less fierce, and they look a lot like a woman's hair.   The ears hang down to the side like a woman's hair, making the head larger and rounder, and in the case of the cocker spaniel, they may be covered with silky hair.  A dog like a movie star!

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