Photograph by Philip Stebbing, National Geographic
Photograph by Kira Ivanoff, NGS
Quick! Which species pulls at your heartstrings—a tiger cub or an algae-covered sloth? A panda or a toad? A lion or a dung beetle? When it comes to emotional attachment, research funding, global popularity, and conservation support, the fluffier your fur and the bigger your eyes, the better your chances—unless zoologist Lucy Cooke has a vote. She's on a one-woman crusade to show the world why some of the most unlovable animals are actually the most interesting and deserving of our attention, study, and protection.
Cooke's popular blogs, online videos, films, and TV programs bring her trademark humor and quirky storytelling style to a serious message: If we only care for the best known and best loved species, other enormously crucial parts of the web of life could vanish forever. With her unconventional attitude, she leverages the Internet to reach a new audience that more traditional wildlife programming has yet to tap.
"My goal is to preach to the unconverted," says Cooke. "A lot of conservation messages are difficult to hear; they make people feel guilty. I think humor is the sugar coating that helps people swallow the pill. If you manage to make someone laugh while you tell them something important, they'll stick around and listen to more."
Cooke worries about what she calls "the tyranny of the cute." "There are so many television shows about koala bears and kittens," she observes. "All the attention seems focused on a handful of charismatic ‘celebrity' animals. Even scientists get less funding for animals that aren't cute and cuddly. In fact, large mammal species appear in 500 times as many published papers as threatened amphibians."
She adds: "I've always loved an underdog. Weird, freaky creatures fascinate me because they tell an amazing evolutionary story. I'm interested in all of nature, not just the shiny, fluffy bits."
Amphibians, particularly frogs, top Cooke's underdog list. "Over a third of amphibians are going extinct; it's the worst extinction crisis since the dinosaurs were wiped off the planet. Yet I couldn't convince anyone to commission a film about it. That motivated me to start my Amphibian Avenger blog." The widely read blog showcases creatures that rarely attract the spotlight. "Frogs are a miracle of evolution that come in myriad forms and every color of the rainbow. You literally can't get bored with them."
Amphibians also occupy a crucial spot in the middle of the food chain. "If you remove them, everything else goes haywire," she notes. "The ripples are already reverberating through the whole web of life—when amphibians go extinct, birds and snakes that eat them also disappear. Since amphibians breathe through their delicate skin; they are very vulnerable to pollution, climate change, and disease. That makes them fantastic barometers of the health of ecosystems. If amphibians aren't doing well, chances are their overall environment is sick."
Even the story of why amphibians are so endangered is fascinating. "The deadly fungus, chytrid, is creeping across the planet, wiping out whole swaths of amphibians like something from a sci-fi movie," Cooke says. A leading theory says the fungus came from the African clawed frog, which was bred and exported by the thousands to produce frog-based pregnancy tests. A woman's urine would be injected into the frog, and if eggs were laid, the woman was pregnant. When new forms of testing emerged, the frogs (by then in labs all across the world) were released into the wild. Scientists, totally unaware the frogs carried the lethal fungus, had unwittingly helped start a worldwide epidemic.
"It's exciting to tell stories that haven't been told," Cooke says. "Take Wallace's flying frog. It lives in the tallest trees on the planet, atop Borneo's rain forest canopy. To avoid going all the way up and down, this frog evolved with flaps of skin that allow it to glide from tree to tree. Or consider the golden poison dart frog, the most poisonous vertebrate on the planet. Only one centimeter long, yet loaded with enough poison to kill ten men. Or Darwin's frog, the only species excepting the seahorse in which the male gets pregnant."
Cooke's blog and videos transport you to one of the world's highest lakes, where the endangered Lake Titicaca frog survives huge variations in temperature and intense UV rays by permanently living on the lake's floor. Since it never surfaces, it breathes only through its skin and consequently evolved with copious folds and flaps to increase its surface area. "Tragically, I've only seen this frog in a blender," Cooke reports. "People have decided he's a medicinal cure for impotence." Her videos expose frog juice bars that have brought the ancient species to the brink of extinction.
Cooke reached her widest audience yet when her online video about sloths went viral. Millions have viewed the film about a sanctuary for baby sloths that were orphaned due to power lines and roads that now wind through Costa Rica's jungles. Cooke is pleased to help elevate the status of sloths; animals that she insists are unfairly derided and misunderstood. "They've always had a reputation for being lazy, stupid, and dirty. The first European to describe a sloth said, ‘If there was one more thing wrong with it, it wouldn't survive.' It's even named after one of the seven deadly sins."
In fact, "slothfulness" is the key to the animal's success. A slow metabolism allows the sloth's liver to process toxins found in the leaves it eats. Moving slowly also keeps it hidden from predators. "My video showed the world how cute and interesting these babies are," Cooke says. "I'll use any tactic to make people like things."
The wobbly-nosed proboscis monkey, dung beetles, bats, and more get their moment in the sun thanks to Cooke. "It's about championing animals that don't have a voice and telling their stories in a way that engages a wider audience. I want people to share my sense of wonder, amazement, and love for these creatures. Once you understand why they're ugly or odd, I hope you'll appreciate and want to save them as much as I do."
Lucy's Blog Posts
In Their Words
I’m attracted to animals that need a champion—the unloved, the ugly, the dispossessed, the freaks. The quirky, evolutionary stories they tell us are incredible; we can’t afford to let a single species disappear.
Why do baby sloths squeak?
See Cooke's images from the sanctuary.
Listen to Lucy Cooke
Hear an interview with Cooke on National Geographic Weekend.
00:11:00 Lucy Cooke
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