Spring through fall, I spend most of my free time outside at home, gardening and doing yardwork, hiking with the dogs, or simply taking in the view of the gentle glades, hills and woodlands around me. In winter, I’m usually indoors looking out, studying the stark landscape that, except for the green-needled ridgeline, is monotoned in grays and browns. With most wildlife hunkered down in the cold weather, the winter landscape has been silent and still, but it is starting to come alive with hints of spring. Feb. 7 was the first time I heard this year’s spring peepers. Ten days later was the first time this year I saw wild turkeys. At the dismay of my rooster, a trio of toms came out of the woods and moved efficiently across the yard, hoovering up insects. Last week I noticed bluebirds building nests for their first brood of the year. All those creatures are delightful to watch or listen to. Far less delightful are the opossum that lurk around my house nearly every night.
This winter I’ve watched the Opossum Channel almost nightly. There’s not much entertainment in the woods-enshrouded valley where I live. Poor internet service prohibits streaming. I don’t have cable TV. On frigid winter nights after dinner, I putter around the house, read (I work at a library after all) and peek out the windows like some weird wildlife-watching version of Boo Radley. I’ve noticed opossum often but I’m not sure exactly what I’ve been seeing. I’ve either been watching the same one or two opossum or there’s a villainous mob of them sneaking around the yard. They scurry to take cover under the deck, trigger motion sensor lights at the outbuildings, snuffle past my sweet old cat sitting on the patio, or pop up from the inside of my chicken feeders. They startle me and they work my beagles into a frenzy.
I watch the opossum but I can’t identify them individually or do an inventory because I’m unable to bring myself to really look. Opossum are not easy on the eyes. They have a scaly prehensile tail, pointed snout, beady eyes, and slimy teeth. Opossum babies riding on their mother’s back are less ugly than the adults but they’re a far cry from the innocent and lovable look of fox pups, bunnies, bear cubs, and fawn. But is there more to opossum than meets the eye? Is there a reason why they’re designed to look the way they do? And why do we perceive them as ugly?
Questions about cuteness and ugliness intrigue biologist Dr. Jason Davis, an Associate Professor at Radford University and guest speaker at the library’s upcoming program, Wild Animals and the Biology Behind Being Cute, Ugly or Both. Focusing mostly on vertebrates, Davis studies how animals cope with a dynamic environment and how their physiological systems, such as immune and hormonal, adapt to development, growth and other changes. In the cute/ugly realm, Davis has researched questions such as, What is the purpose of cuteness? Is there an evolutionary reason for it? How and why are our brains wired for cuteness? What makes ugliness so unappealing?
“Most baby animals, human infants included, have big eyes, a large head relative to their body size, and chubby little limbs,” Davis said. “These features look cute. Muscles and bones develop later than the nervous system which is essential for learning and surviving. Growing out of the ‘baby face’ is less of a priority and adults are responsive to it. They pay more attention to their young. They bond with them. They’re better parents.”
Davis told me that many physiological and behavioral factors contribute to the role and perception of cuteness. During his presentation at the library, he’ll explain the science behind them. He’ll also explain what’s going on in the human brain that makes us attracted to cuteness and he’ll encourage us to consider how ugliness affects our attitudes. In the case of opossum, for example, does their ugliness lead to our misunderstanding? Notes Davis, “We see their fangs and hear them hiss, so we think they’re rabid animals and we can’t stand them. We tell other people that they’re rabid and to stay away from them. But the truth is that, biologically, opossum are extremely resistant to rabies and very unlikely to carry or transmit it.”
I’ve decided to learn more about the opossum that frequent my yard and try to see past their ugliness. I watch my beagles — a breed of dog that, young or old, has an undeniably adorable face — howl at them. I remind myself that over their lifetime opossum eat thousands of ticks, getting rid of an organism that looks truly ugly and that, for its ability to spread disease, truly deserves our loathing.
Presented through the library’s “Myths & Facts Virginia Wildlife Series” and funded by the Friends of Main Library, Wild Animals and the Biology Behind Being Cute, Ugly or Both will be held at the main branch on March 19 at 6:30 p.m. Please reserve a seat by calling 483-3098 option 0.
Arena is Coordinator of Programming & Outreach for the Franklin County Public Library