Who Cares If They're Cute? This Zoologist Accepts Animals On Their Own Terms

Apr 22, 2018
Originally published on April 26, 2018 9:55 am

Zoologist Lucy Cooke says humans have got it all wrong about sloths. "People think that because the animal is slow that it's somehow useless and redundant," she says. But in fact, "they are incredibly successful creatures."

Cooke is the founder of the Sloth Appreciation Society and the author of a new book called The Truth About Animals: Stoned Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos, and Other Tales from the Wild Side of Wildlife. The book aims to set the record straight on some long-held misconceptions about the animal world.

"The sloth is not the only animal that's being misunderstood in this way," she says. "I thought it was time that we rebranded the animal kingdom according to fact and not sentimentality – because we have a habit of viewing the animal kingdom through the prism of our own rather narrow existence and judging animals on our terms."

The book discusses creatures big and small, furry and slippery: eels, bats, hippos, frogs, storks, and more. "I wanted to showcase a range of stories," Cooke says. "I wanted to show misunderstandings that date all the way from Aristotle to Disney."

She sat down to talk with us about how we are (literally) looking at sloths upside down, why Aristotle was so confused about eels, and why pandas need ambiance to get in the mood.


Interview Highlights

On humans projecting their bipedal ape values onto sloths

We are busy, bipedal apes, and we are obsessed with moving faster than nature intended. So we look at the cheetah and we think ... this magnificent creature, and we looked down at the sloth, and think: Oh, it's so slow, it's so pathetic. ...

The sloth is an icon of energy saving. ... They've managed to survive by some fantastically peculiar adaptations that allow them to survive on very few calories; in fact, just 160 calories a day, which is about the same as a packet of chips. ...

The early explorers who first traveled to the Americas ... described [the sloth] as the stupidest animal that can be found in the world. ... They got it wrong because the sloth is an inverted quadruped — so it hangs from the trees. And to hang like that is an incredibly energy-saving existence. ... The problem is, when you turn the sloth the other way up ... gravity removes their dignity.

On the tendency of films such as March of the Penguins to moralize animal behavior

We are, I think, a really insecure species, and we're constantly looking for our reflection in the animal kingdom. ... It happens every day in the newspapers, and on the TV, and in documentaries.

We shouldn't be looking to the animal kingdom for moral guidance. We should be looking inside ourselves. ... There are hazards involved with choosing a small, flightless, fish-eating bird for moral guidance.

On tracing some of our animal ideas all the way back to Aristotle

He's the grandfather of zoology, and he was a brilliant scientist. ... He'd measure and observe animals in situ, and dissect them, and then draw conclusions about their behavior, and he made some amazing discoveries. But he also got a few things wrong. And looking at those mistakes, I think, is incredibly charming, and gives us sort of a window into the thinking at the time, as well.

On what Aristotle got wrong about eels

They go through not one, but four metamorphoses. They make this extraordinary journey from the Sargasso Sea ... all the way to the rivers of America. ... They fatten themselves up and live in rivers for years, only so that they can fuel the massive journey all the way back to the Sargasso to breed. ...

Aristotle sliced open eels and he couldn't find any sex organs. And the reason why is because they only develop in that fourth metamorphosis, as they're heading back to the Sargasso. So the eels that you find in rivers are completely sexless. So he thought: Well, they must reproduce by spontaneous generation. The action of water on mud must create eels. And so that was one of his mistakes, and that idea of spontaneous generation, hung about until the 17th century. People thought all sorts of animals that they couldn't explain how they reproduce, "spontaneously emerged."

On why we aren't doing pandas any favors by infantilizing them

The thing about pandas is, because they look like wobbly little toddlers — they've got these baby-like features, so they trigger the reward centers in our brain to want to nurture them. And because of that, we have infantilized them. ... We don't think of them as bears. We think of them as helpless evolutionary mishaps that can't survive without our help.

A lot of the conservation has been centered around captive breeding efforts in China and sort of micromanaging the bears' lives. The insinuation is that they can't survive in the wild without us — and this is complete rubbish. What we need to do is the reverse. We need to leave them alone, but just leave them with enough bamboo forest.

Because pandas, we think of them as being very famously ... rubbish at sex. You know papers love to scream headlines: "Oh, Zoo Panda Failed To Do It Again!" ... Pandas are just as choosy as humans are. They don't want to just get plumped into a cell with another panda and expected to procreate. It's very difficult breeding in captivity, because you have to understand what these complex behavioral environmental cues are in order to get the animals to do it.

On an op-ed in The New York Times that described Harvey Weinstein as a hyena

I thought to myself: That is the most ridiculous thing I have ever read. ... They come from a matriarchal society. ... Most people think that they're all scavengers, they're not. They are highly successful predators. Really, really intelligent. Amazing communicators with a very kind of complex language, you could almost call it. That "woop" that they make ... decodes the individual, the sex, how old it is. They're very, very sophisticated creatures. ...

In the ancient BCs they thought they were hermaphrodites. And that's fair enough that they made that mistake because the female hyena's genitalia is a perfect facsimile of the males. She has what's described in polite zoological circles as a "pseudo penis" and they're almost impossible to tell apart. ...

It was interesting for me writing the book to trace back where a lot of these myths came from, and to find that some of the mistakes and the preconceptions we have, they date all the way back to Greek, Roman and Medieval times.

On the real problem with our anthropocentric approach to animals

These are dangerous times. We are facing mass extinction of so many different species. And I really would love it if we could appreciate animals on their terms, and respect them for what they are, and not what we want them to be. ...

I think we're choosy about what we like, and we don't like. So vultures for instance — hugely unpopular. People don't like them because they're scavengers and they're filthy. But they do an incredibly important job. ... Vulture conservationists, they can't get anybody to donate money to them. Because nobody likes them, because they look like the Grim Reaper and they eat dead things for a living. But we need them just as much as we need the pandas.

Sophia Boyd and Viet Le produced and edited this story for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Lucy Cooke is the founder of the Sloth Appreciation Society. Their motto - being fast is overrated. Of course, that's not her only claim to fame. Cooke is an Oxford-trained zoologist and an award-winning documentary filmmaker. And in her new book, "The Truth About Animals," she sets the record straight about sloths and other much misunderstood creatures. A warning to our listeners, we will be discussing animal sex a lot. She joins us now in the studio. Hello.

LUCY COOKE: Hello there.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So this book takes us deep into the history of not only animals but how humans have studied the animal kingdom. Why did you write this book?

COOKE: It was the sloth that really inspired me because I get asked a lot, how can sloths exist when they're such losers? And people think that because the animal is slow that it's somehow useless and redundant. An actual fact - they are incredibly successful creatures. So the sloth is not the only animal that's been misunderstood in this way. And I thought it was time that we rebranded the animal kingdom according to fact and not sentimentality because we have a habit of viewing the animal kingdom through the prism of our own rather narrow existence and judging animals on our terms. So I thought there were quite a lot of wrongs that needed to be righted.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And, you know, we are going to talk about quite a few of them because you have a lot of interesting things to say about a lot of these animals. But I want to start with the sloth. I lived and worked in Latin America, where the sloth obviously lives. And they get a bad rap. What should people know that they don't?

COOKE: Well, people think that being slow is second-rate, and we are obsessed with moving faster than nature intended. But actual fact - sloths are energy-saving icons. And they are incredibly successful because of their slothful nature. The sloth is an inverted quadruped, so it hangs from the trees. To hang like that is an incredibly energy-saving existence because, you know, if you're an upright existence, you need much more muscles to hold yourself upright. And the sloth actually only has 50 percent of the muscle mass of a comparable mammal that lives in upright existence. But the problem is when you turn the sloth the other way up...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: They look slow. They look like they're not really doing much. And so we're not looking at them in the right way.

COOKE: Yeah, gravity removes their dignity, basically. So they sort of sprawl like a pancake on the ground. And that's how the first explorers would have seen them because they would have been taken out of the trees. Do you know what I mean? And they're crawling helplessly along the ground.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But you do note - and I have to say this - that they are drug addicts.

(LAUGHTER)

COOKE: Yeah, there's an island off the coast of Panama that is home to a species of sloth that is a dwarf sloth. It's the pygmy sloth. And those sloths live in the mangrove swamps, where they graze off an algae that has alkaloids in it with a similar property to valium. So they don't just look stoned. They are stoned.

(LAUGHTER)

COOKE: It's an island of pygmy baked sloths...

(LAUGHTER)

COOKE: ...Which you might think is something of an evolutionary cul-de-sac. But there's no natural predators on the island. And by slowing down their metabolism so much, they're saving even more energy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. Now we're going to get to the nitty-gritty. I want to talk about penguin sex.

(LAUGHTER)

COOKE: Be warned. Be warned, listeners. Yeah. Well, I mean, penguins are one of those creatures that have been totally misunderstood. We always think of them as being great parents, monogamous...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right.

COOKE: ...Fantastically faithful. The movie "March Of The Penguins" has much to blame, actually, because the thing about penguins is these are birds with tiny brains. They live in a very harsh environment. It's brutal living in the Antarctic. And so they are flooded with hormones that make them basically have sex with anything that moves and quite a few things that don't move, like dead penguins, for instance. So, you know, they...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right. I didn't see that in the "March of the Penguins" or in the many other penguin movies I've seen. Why is it? That seems so strange to me.

COOKE: Yeah, they left out the pathologically unpleasant necrophiliacs from the lineup. So the males are basically having sex with anything that moves. And the females are one of the only animals on the planet that we know of, other than ourselves, that engages in prostitution. So the females will make use of these randy males by coercing sad singletons into having sex with them in exchange for pebbles.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Wow.

COOKE: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's amazing.

COOKE: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And I was also happy to read that hyena colonies are run by women.

COOKE: So this is an interesting thing. The other day I was reading - I think it was the New York Times, even - described Harvey Weinstein as a hyena. And I thought to myself, that is the most ridiculous thing I have ever read because hyenas - they come from a matriarchal society. Most people think they're all scavengers. They're not. They are highly successful predators, really, really intelligent.

So the amazing thing about hyenas is that they - in the ancient bestiaries, they thought that they were hermaphrodites. And that's fair enough that they made that mistake because the female hyena's genitalia is a perfect facsimile of the males. She has what's described in polite zoological circles as a pseudo-penis. And she also has a fake scrotum. So I think it's really interesting to trace back where a lot of these myths came from and to find that some of the mistakes and the preconceptions we have - they date all the way back to Greek, Roman and Medieval times.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I just have to bring this up because no conversation is complete without pandas. You know, you write that humans are preprogrammed to want to nurture anything with baby-like features, hence our obsession with pandas. What do we get wrong about them?

COOKE: Well, the thing about pandas is that they look like wobbly, little toddlers. They've got these sorts of baby-like features. So they trigger the reward centers in our brain to wanting to nurture them. And because of that, we don't think of them as bad. We think of them as helpless evolutionary mishaps that can't survive without our help. And so a lot of the conservation has been centered around captive breeding efforts in China and sort of micromanaging the bear's lives. And the insinuation is that they can't survive in the wild without us. And this is complete rubbish. What we need to do is the reverse. We need to leave them alone but just leave them with enough bamboo forest because pandas - we think of them as being - very famously, they're rubbish at sex. You know, papers love to scream headlines - oh, zoo panda failed to do it again.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, they don't want to breed in captivity. But you make the point - and I think it's a really valid point - who wants to have sex in a concrete enclosure surrounded by glass (laughter)?

COOKE: Exactly. The panda needs the equivalent of a nice glass of wine and a bit of Barry White in order to get in the mood.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

COOKE: And they - pandas are just as choosy as humans are. And so it's very difficult breeding in captivity because you have to understand what these complex behavioral environmental cues are in order to get the animals to do it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I guess in one way, what you're saying is that we're loving them to death. But isn't the other argument that if we anthropomorphize animals, it's a way of sort of valuing them, and it is a way of increasing our consciousness about conservation and about other issues? Getting children involved in going to zoos and really understanding these animals. Isn't there an argument to be made for that?

COOKE: Yeah, but I think we're choosy about what we like and we don't like. You know, so vultures for instance - vulture populations have crashed in India of late by 99 percent. And that has cost the government billions, billions in an increase in disease and rabies and stray dogs. But vulture conservationists - they can't get anybody to donate money to them because nobody likes them because they look like the Grim Reaper, and they eat dead things for a living. You know, but we need them, just as much as we need the pandas. So, you know, I'm trying to sort of stop people from projecting ourselves and our values onto animals and to see them for what they are and what they do and not choose favorites.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lucy Cooke's new book is "The Truth About Animals: Stoned Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos, And Other Tales From The Wild Side Of Wildlife." Thank you so much.

COOKE: My pleasure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL GIACCHINO'S "SUITE FROM ZOOTOPIA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.