And soon all the people would find Big Ones to live with, who would take care of them and have fun with them and love them, and give them the Wonderful Food. . . . [The Fuzzies] would give their love and make them happy. Later, when they learned how, they would give their help, too.
–H. Beam Piper, Little Fuzzy
Have you seen the tickled slow loris video that’s been proliferating on cute animal websites for several weeks? In the video, the loris holds its front paws up as his owner tickles his armpits.
Here’s another popular video of a Loris being given a cocktail umbrella as a toy.
Watching these videos, using our tendency to anthropomorphize, we project feelings of affection and amusement onto the slow loris in these videos. It’s easy to, given the loris’s enormous eyes and cute fur.
What’s not shown is that these slow lorises are being kept in the cruelest conditions. They were captured from the wild as infants and sold in markets. Their teeth were removed to prevent human owners from being bitten with their venomous bite. Their eyes aren’t accustomed to normal daylight; their behavior is dazed, not affectionate. They never learn the social behaviors of their peers, to properly groom or clean themselves. Imported slow lorises like these live short, miserable lives.
The saga of the tickled slow loris is just the latest in a pattern of animal cruelty that goes unnoticed because we humans have trouble comprehending how animals feel. Facial expressions don’t mean the same thing between different species. A smile on a chimpanzee is no smile at all, but a display of aggression, as much as a flushed face and flaring nostrils are to us. It has taken long for us to recognize the worth of other species beyond their usefulness to us. Little more than 200 years ago the concept of animal rights was used to make a mockery of the struggle for women’s rights championed by Wollstonecraft.
What about other intelligent species on our planet? We don’t know how intelligent dolphins and whales are (I would guess they are more than we speculate), but that doesn’t stop cultures from eating them as food or being brought into captivity by force. The bottlenose dolphin, with its perpetual smile, wears a clown mask.
What shocked me viewing the Slow Loris videos was how much they resemble the creatures in Little Fuzzy, written by H. Beam Piper.
I learned of this obscure classic by when John Scalzi announced his reboot of the series. In a whimsical, heartfelt tone, it tells the story of Jack Holloway and his discovery of the Fuzzies, a race of sentient furry creatures on the alien planet Zarathustra, and his attempt to prove their sentience.
They are also adorable.
What Piper makes clear in the book is that the Fuzzies are more than cuter Ewoks. They have a culture of their own, and they speak a complex language in ultrasonic frequencies, which humans hear as an endearing “yeek!”. They make tools; they solve complex problems; they bury their dead. But some humans resist classifying them on the same moral elevation as us because they’re cute critters and their fur would sell well in the interstellar marketplace. I suppose becoming a pelt is no better a fate than being kept in the conditions of the loris.
One troublesome aspect of the book was how characters treated the Fuzzies like children. Their intelligence is calculated to be that of a ten-year-old child, and they’re much smaller than humans, with inquisitive and playful personalities. But apart from one adorable Fuzzy, none of them are children. What may seem inquisitive and playful to us could be courage overcoming fear, or attempts to appease captors. At the end Piper shows that the Fuzzies really are as affectionate as they appear initially, but that wouldn’t always be the case.
What happens when interspecies recognition goes terribly wrong?
The Mount is a wonderful book by Carol Emshwiller. An alien race called the Hoots, evolved from prey animals with immobile bodies but strong hands and excellent senses, have conquered humanity, and now breed and race them like horses. The humans are kept in stalls and wear tack. The Hoots wear spurs; when their human mounts get obstinate, they cut them with poles. Human races (called “conformations”) are bred for strength, speed or other attributes. Some have had their teeth removed to better hold their bits in their mouths. One character will never speak well again due to the trauma of the bit.
Written differently, the Hoots could be rich human horse owners. The language that Emshwiller uses is pastoral, more appropriate for a book about the English countryside than SF. The Hoots keep customs similar to our own, such as riding clothes and mount-handling etiquette. They deny or ignore their dominion over and cruelty to humans. Anything reflecting what we consider human qualities — independence, music, love — is oppressed with the same demeanor a horse tamer would have on a wild stallion.
The Hoots could never see the humans as equals because they kept interpreting them through Hoot cultural lenses. Because we didn’t hear or smell as well, because we cook our food, because we make perfect mounts for the Hoots, they forced humans into a submissive position, one that seemingly can never be overcome.
The poor, tickled slow loris isn’t our intellectual equal; it likely has no more awareness of itself than a dog does. That doesn’t mean we know what’s best for the Loris, or that our behaviors are its behaviors too. That tickling pose wasn’t eagerness; it was submission. The owner is not a loving caretaker; he is a torturer. We have come to condemn cultural nearsightedness; we should learn to overcome species nearsightedness as well.