Not All Clownfish Are Named Nemo!

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The Endangered Species Coalition (ESC) has an interesting ongoing contest to give endangered species  more outreach-friendly and interesting monikers.  Its supposed to be a humorous perspective, and I can see the appeal.  For instance, instead of the Delta Smelt, the “Yummy-Tasty Fish”. 

I’ve been really interested in the whole concept of names and wildlife lately.  I regularly encounter people who use the names of popular characters for wildlife.  Ocellaris clownfish become Nemo.  Atlantic bottlenose dolphin are Flipper.  Emperor penguins are Happy Feet.  Hippo surgeonfish are Dory.  Loggerhead sea turtles are Crush or Squirt.  California sea lions are Andre.  Sea stars with any tinge of pink become Patrick.  And it goes on.

It makes me wonder if there is any danger in connecting to wildlife through this lens of imaginative stories. 

I suppose if we only see these animals as the real world embodiment of the characters, then we’re sacrificing a greater appreciation for what they truly are… wild animals!  It seems to be so easy to succumb to the convention that any animal portrayed in a cartoon narrative would be as friendly as they appear on the screen.  I still cringe when I see people along the IRL system get excited about bottlenose dolphin pods and make fanciful statements that they would like to feed them and swim with them.  These are wild animals.. predators that weigh in anywhere from 600 – 700 lbs and hunt cooperatively inside their social pods.  It is a mistake to think – for even a second – that wild animals will always be as docile as they are often portrayed in literature and film. 

But the other edge of the saw is that creating likeable characters from the framework of a species that is imperiled can raise the awareness of the species.  I wrote a few days ago about the story of a real Hawaiian monk seal, Penelope, whose story helped to highlight the complications of monk seal pups and their propensity for entangling in abandoned fishing gear along Hawaii’s coast line.  She isnt the only ambassador of this kind.

When I was little a wayward manatee named Chessie decided to migrate from the warm waters of Florida all the way up to the Chesapeake and Delaware Bays.  He was “rescued”, rehabilitated for a short interval by SeaWorld Orlando, and released back to Florida’s habitats.  But instead of remaining in Florida’s waters, he lived to remake the same migration along the eastern coastline of the United States several more times.  Chessie’s story inspired many people in my generation, that lived in the Northeast, to get interested in endangered manatees. 

Perhaps its just a fine line we walk when we attempt to pull on the heart strings of our community and our children by targeting them through characters instead of appealing to them with hard data and scientific papers.  There are strengths and weaknesses in each approach of course, but I fear for the people who do not have the opportunity to interact with wildlife and who only know them through such characters.  Artistic license being what it is, this can lead to some very skewed perceptions about the real animals. 

And sadly, that isnt just a fear of mine, its a reality that I tend to confront every day as a person in environmental education and outreach.  I would wager at least half of my job is spent guiding people through their perceptions and dispeling their misconceptions about wild animals.  No penguins don’t dance.  No we won’t see polar bears living with penguins.  Clownfish are actually hermaphrodites and after Nemo’s mom died his father Marlin would have become the new female.  (Yikes!)  Flipper isnt always friendly and docile out in the ocean.  Crush and Squirt would probably have never met out in the ocean on the EAC (because sea turtles don’t have any parental care).   

Its not going to go away any time soon either.  People have incorporated animals into their culture since the beginning and have wavered from demonizing to deifying them (or is that the same thing) for most of human history.  The question is, how do we connect people to the reality of the natural world without resorting to these constructions?  Or, perhaps even better, is there any harm in continuing to see animals through the lens of art instead of the lens of reality?

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One Comment to “Not All Clownfish Are Named Nemo!”

  1. Your blog is interesting!

    Keep up the good work!