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(Thinkstock)
(Thinkstock)

Sarah Hampson

Kitten videos and puppy memes: Feel the cutegasm? Add to ...

Consider the story of Hilda, from Poole in Dorset, England. Hilda is a hen, a very nice-looking hen, and, as it turns out, an open-minded one as well. One day in the spring of 2012, she took up her position as the chief guardian of a nest of five eggs, ultimately sitting on them. Everyone on her farm awaited a clutch of fluffy chicks. But that was not to be. Five ducklings emerged instead. Hilda had been confused. Ducks lived on the farm, too. And she had happened to sit on the wrong nest, which is a bit like finding yourself in a sex shop when you were just looking for pretty panties. But did she panic? Not our Hilda.

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When they opened their eyes, the ducklings fixated on Hilda, figuring she was Mom. (Their particular avian structuring would make them call a rubber boot Mom too, if it was the first thing they laid eyes on. But never mind.) Hilda, for her part, simply carried on without treating the ducklings any differently. You can Google Hilda the Hen from Poole and find pictures of her crossing the yard with her ducklings in tow.

If you do, prepare yourself for a cutegasm. I didn’t make that word up. It’s in the online Urban Dictionary, referring to the aww response you have when you see something adorable. I’ll make up another word: cutey-porn. And this: animal-cutey-porn. The culture is awash with cute pictures of animals. In September, British Airways will introduce a new inflight channel called Paws and Relax, featuring popular shows such as America’s Cutest Dogs, The Secret Life of Cats and Simon’s Cat, an animated series. The airline cites research indicating cute animals lower the human heart rate. Canines, of course, are so prevalent as advertising pitchdogs and television characters that they’re almost passé, while cats have taken over the Internet. Now, the latest iterations of animal-cutey-porn and memes of the moment are interspecies relationships – the cat who cares for a squirrel, the greyhound who befriends a fox, the border collie who looks after a piglet.

The power of cute has long been understood – and deployed. In 1949, Konrad Lorenz, an Austrian ethnologist, theorized that infantile features such big heads, large eyes and small noses elicit a nurturing response in humans. And of course there’s an evolutionary genius to the response as it makes us care for our human offspring. But cute animals – with their juvenile features – stir a similar reaction, a surge of tenderness for something that is deemed vulnerable, helpless and needy. Scholars who have studied the pervasive “cute culture” in Japan, land of Hello Kitty and squishy corporate mascots, believe that it bloomed in the postwar period as a way to project dependency and harmlessness after the Second World War. Scientists have documented how stuffed teddy bears evolved through the 20th century to have stubbier noses and higher foreheads because consumers preferred them that way. In 1979, Harvard professor Stephen Gould referenced Lorenz’s work in an essay, A Biological Homage to Mickey Mouse, in which he described the changing face of Mickey as the Walt Disney cartoon character became cuter and more juvenile.

But the interspecies-relationship photos go beyond merely showing cuteness. There’s a subliminal message for humans. When Lisa Rogak’s book about interspecies relationships, One Big Happy Family, came out last year, it was around the time of the U.S. government shutdown, a low point for co-operation. “[The animal stories] show us what’s really lacking in our human interaction,” she says in an interview to explain the “overwhelming” popularity of the book, which features stories and photographs of odd-couple animals. “Why can’t humans be that benevolent in more cases?” Rogak also feels that the animals represent a truth that’s rare in today’s digital, media-heavy culture. “So much in life these days is fake. Animals are real. There’s no buffer.”

Animal stories have long been the stuff of children’s literature, of course. There’s the dog who travelled 3,000 miles with a cat and a spider who advised a pig. “But the power of it now is that you get to see the images of numerous instances of co-operation between species,” says Stanley Coren, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of British Columbia and author of The Wisdom of Dogs. “These pictures are a substitute for the daily comics or the one-panel cartoon. They give you 10 seconds of pleasure, but you don’t just read them, you share them. And there’s the [compounded] cuteness factor. You take a puppy and a kitten, [then add more] cute, which results in a viral piece of media.”

The possibility of conflict in the relationship adds to the fascination, Coren says. “There’s an awful lot of fiction that’s based on the odd couple, two things that shouldn’t get along. We like the surprise, but there’s also an element of danger to interspecies relationships. We watch the dog who befriends an elephant. They’re cavorting around. We’re slightly amazed but also afraid. What if the elephant turns suddenly? We might have pâté of Labrador retriever.”

In the end, it’s all a form of distraction, like celebrity culture. It’s also mass infantilization: We’re diverting ourselves from worries about the world – not to mention the terror of mid-flight turbulence – by gazing at fluffy creatures with saucer eyes and floppy ears. The interspecies relationships, meanwhile, are a sort of wishful fantasy in which no action is required.

“Parenting instincts defied their natural predator instincts where an encounter would typically result in injury and often death,” Rogak writes in the introduction of One Big Happy Family. “The simple truth is that the siren call of their maternal or parental drive was stronger.”

Awww. Feel the cutegasm? If only human life could be a simpler, more peaceful reality, where lion dictators co-operate with mousey presidents, where we all just get along.

Follow on Twitter: @Hampsonwrites

 

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