Cute sells

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BOULDER, COLO.—Several hundred people turned out for a vigil in the U.S. for an elk killed by a police officer.

Those honouring the animal on Sunday lit candles, sang and told stories.

The large animal with antlers was wandering the Colorado neighbourhood when it was fatally shot by a Boulder police officer, who has been placed on leave. An off-duty officer suspected of helping by loading the carcass into a truck is also on leave.

The Boulder Daily Camera reported that organizers of the vigil wanted to give people an opportunity to grieve, celebrate and find closure.

That is the entirety of an Associated Press (AP) news story out of Colorado. But in the Boulder Daily Camera story that the AP report came from, there’s more:

“I know a lot of us have had a lot of anger, a lot of questions, a lot of uncertainty,” vigil organizer Jim Riemersma said. “Tonight's a celebration, a celebration of the elk. We loved him. But I think he loved us, too, because he returned to this neighborhood.”

The elk was allegedly poached by the police officer in question, although there are also reports that the elk was becoming aggressive.

All in all, it’s an interesting example of our unique human bent towards anthropomorphism. Cats and dogs have “personality” without being persons at all. Other animals are equally feted as having particularly human characteristics, everything from being good parents to being good at basic skills like crossing highways.

But only in particular cases. Why? Because we’re selective, and cute rules.

Journalists across this province — across the country, in fact — are well aware of the web traffic that grows out of any animal cruelty story.

We’re keenly aware that people tend to give human traits — and care more — in direct relation to the cuteness of whatever animal is involved in a story. A cute puppy dog or fluffy kitten killed? Get ready for outrage by the tonne, coupled with personal stories of just how directly affected people are by the story. It’s not unusual to read reactions that include people made physically ill by cruelty to a chained dog or a burned cat. (It is, of course, why whitecoat seals, not sculpins, are featured in animal rights campaigns.)

Interesting, then, that the Boulder elk story was trending highly across Canada at the same time that another story was trending at similarly high levels: in New Brighton, Alta., there were fast-breaking stories that a roof rat was found in a garage.

Alberta scrupulously exterminates rats as part of a province-wide program to keep the province entirely free of the beady-eyed animals. Rat stories are a big deal because of the potential damage the invaders pose towards grain crops.

Rats regularly try to return to neighbourhoods in Alberta, and, when found, are exterminated every time. Presumably, the rats must love the prairie province, because they keep trying.

We’ll keep you posted on whether there’s a Brighton vigil to grieve, celebrate and find closure.

We suspect there won’t be. And that’s worth thinking about.

Organizations: Associated Press

Geographic location: Colorado, U.S., New Brighton Alberta Canada

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