Why do humans domesticate animals? Obviously, we harvest them for their delicious meat and furry skin, harness their strength for transportation and agriculture and breed them to be sold. But to capture and cage an animal merely to enjoy its presence? This is surely a strange thing to do.
There are some unique reasons for humans taking animals into captivity: the owner could be disabled, using the animal to enhance their deteriorating sense of smell, the animal could also be used to fight crime by sniffing suitcases at the airport, or perhaps the owner desired to impress their friends by purchasing an exotic pet, such as an orangutan or rhinoceros. These explanations are certainly legitimate, but the majority of pets are purchased at a young age, before they can fight crime or plow fields, and many species, such as cats, are neither useful, exotic nor do they make steadfast companions. The most common reason why a human will buy a pet is that it is cute.
If we imagine a cuddly baby animal, we usually think of a kitten or puppy, for they are the most common cuties picked up from local pet shops, but our appetite for the adorable extends to rodents and reptiles as well. Baby goats, turtles, owls and bears – we love them all – but why? What is it about these infant creatures that makes us want to pick them up, snuggle them and mutter high-pitched gibberish?
Most of us associate adorability with certain morphological proportions. One attribute commonly associated with cuteness is large eyes, but the creature with the largest eyes in proportion to its body is the vampire squid, which is hardly a cuttlefish. Another proportional association, commonly observed in newborn humans, is short limbs and an oversize head. However, Tyrannosaurus is famous for its incredibly short arms and is known as a modern icon of savage predation. As well, a sperm whale’s head can grow to 1,400 cubic feet (one-third of its body size), and they are awful brutes, undeserving of affection. Perhaps proportion isn’t the solution.
Maybe the answer is behavior. We recognize certain whimpers and cries as cute sounds, but that is probably because we know that they are coming from a adorable, vulnerable life form. Newborns are also noticeably clumsier and less stable than their adult counterparts. Clumsy babies are definitely cute, but there’s nothing cute about a grown person falling down – it is merely hilarious.
Many of us associate cuteness with size, since young animals are both smaller and cuter than adults. However, being smaller than an adult does not guarantee that an animal will be cute. Pandas, for example, are born as hideous, pink, eyeless blobs. The animal must be both small in comparison to an adult, as well as recognizable as one of its kind. It seems as though the vital characteristic that all cute baby animals share is that they are a shrunken version of an adult of their species. Now that we know how they can be cute, we can begin to wonder why they are cute.
When we encounter a young animal, we are overcome with concern for the tiny creature. This could be an instinct which causes us to care for our young, but why would it make us concerned for the young of another species? Adorability could be a trick that young animals use to discourage predators from devouring them, which explains why humans tend to feel guilty about eating young animals. Unfortunately for lambs, they are far too delicious for their cuteness to save them. Perhaps cuteness is merely an emotional reaction to observing the fragility of an unusually small version of a creature. These explanations seem viable, but cuteness can be found in places outside of the animal kingdom.
If small size and resemblance to adults is what makes baby animals cute, this could also apply to any other miniature replication. When we shrink down spoons, dolls, food and furniture, they also become adorable, and they aren’t even alive! Do not be deceived; cuteness is merely an instinctive concern for fragility brought on by the observation of an unusually tiny version of an object or creature.
Remember, baby turtles and alligators may seem like a cute idea for a pet, but they grow up!