We Judge Even Animals by the Color of Their Skin




In European folklore, a black cat was a dire omen and, later, a witch’s familiar. A white deer was an extraordinary creature, poised to shapeshift into someone’s lover or sister. Medieval myths—yet black cats are last to be adopted, even now. And in St. Ansgar, Iowa, a white deer so captivated the townspeople that they preserved her body behind glass.

Folklore stains our imagination for centuries.

So does our love of the unique, the rare, the scarce. Maryville, Kansas, was so charmed by its black squirrels that it made them its mascot, legally accorded “the freedom to trespass on all city property, immunity from traffic regulations, and the right of first choice to all black walnuts growing within the city.” A predator species of unusual coloration, however, would receive a very different reception: hunted down, like Moby Dick’s great white whale, with extra excitement.

And I thought “race” was a category we only used to prejudge one another. Turns out we are racist even toward animals. The pattern of our favor indicates that the substance in question is not “race” at all, but a clump of biomolecules called melanin. Their presence pigments the hair (or fur), skin, and eyes; their absence blanches. Swayed by ancient symbols and contemporary prejudices, we, supposedly the creatures of reason, react powerfully to the black-and-white extremes.

Dr. Elizabeth Carlen, a National Science Foundation and Living Earth Collaborative postdoctoral fellow here at Washington University, studies how animals evolve in cities. She and six other researchers just had an unusual paper published, rare as one of their subjects. In it they look at extreme coloration—unusually dark, or melanistic; unusually light, leucistic; and pure white, albino—and how it influences our willingness to interact with wild animals in our immediate environment.

Carlen offers me scores of examples. “Do humans feel somehow graced by encounters with these animals,” I ask, “or do we connect with them because they, too, have felt like the odd one out?” Some of both, she says, pointing out that in Northwest Coast indigenous communities, seeing a white “spirit bear” feels like a blessing, because these bears are assumed to be messengers from the other side. But oftentimes there also seems to be an instinctive sympathy, a resonance for creatures not like their kin.

“We used to think about biology as removed from the social sciences and the humanities,” she says. “I’m trying to think about how all my biases influence the way I look at the world.” She glances at her pure white West Highland terrier, napping on the office windowsill, and raises a wry eyebrow, well aware that Western culture has long prized whiteness. She just loves Westies. But she also knows that here in the U.S., primal distrust of the scary darkness mixes with decades of systematized racism, and the unconscious influence seeps into our animal shelters.

Color intersects with number, though: if black dogs only came along once in a blue moon, people would race to adopt them. Instead, she says, we see so many black dogs that they fall victim to what is known in her field as “the tragedy of becoming common.”

“Starlings and crows have a negative connotation” for the same reason, she continues.

“Yeah, but starlings deserve it,” I say, “the way they mob a single tree and screech at you.”

“Well, but do they?” she retorts. “If they were beautifully, brilliantly colored, would you feel differently?” And I swallow hard and say nothing, because a tree studded with cardinals or bluebirds or orioles sounds like a lovely sight indeed.

Carlen tilts back in her chair and grins. “You know how, at weddings and funerals, they release white doves? Those are leucistic pigeons. The same feral pigeons you find on the street in Manhattan or downtown St. Louis. Yet if you took two wildtype [typically colored] pigeons and released them at your wedding, people would be appalled.”

We cherish sights of pure black or pure white animals for their stark beauty, and the startle of their rarity. But we also tend to like unusually colored animals because we can recognize and name them. This familiarity draws wild animals close instead of keeping them outside the perimeter, remote and classed simply as “wildlife.” My mom named a little field mouse who visited her porch: “Oh, there’s Mickey come for breakfast.” Carlen’s mom names the squirrels in her backyard.

“People have villainized squirrels,” Carlen notes. “They get mad when squirrels eat the birdfeed, even though it’s a free wildlife resource and you can’t dictate who uses it. They act as though the squirrels are being rude! But if a squirrel has a shorter tail or more cinnamon coloring, and you can identify that individual, you get more attached. Now it’s part of the community, not an outsider.”

We feel graced when we witness something rare, scarce, special. (We also like to own such things, a trait that helps drive the luxury economy.) But sometimes we also feel a sympathy of kinship, because maybe we felt different from the other kids growing up, marginalized by some physical trait we could not control. Forgive an innocent animal, and you forgive yourself.

Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa even have laws protecting albinistic or leucistic white-tailed deer. Why are there no protections for melanistic deer, those silhouette of dark elegance?

“I don’t know,” Carlen says. “I have no idea why there are legal protections for albino or leucistic deer! I want managers to be very aware, when they are making these laws, what they mean. Why are you choosing to protect these specific individuals? I get that we want to preserve diversity. But if they are less fit, less able to thermoregulate or camouflage themselves? Of course then you get into eugenics, which is a very scary thing.” But you are already manipulating by protecting certain animals in the first place….

She also worries about extreme coloration as a lure for trophy hunters or a boost to the illegal animal trade. A white tiger or albino snake will draw buyers eager to own such a rare creature, their own status elevated by the acquisition.

Finally, Carlen worries about reporting bias. “There are only two or three albino squirrels on the Mall in D.C., but they come up in all these iNaturalist photos.” Those images are submitted and used to ID and geotag, helping wildlife biologists map who is where. If you went by frequency of report, the capital’s Mall would look overrun by pale squirrels. And when she did research in New York, people “were obsessed with the black squirrels, just absolutely obsessed, telling me all the time about them.” She wondered if that meant those squirrels received more “mercy feeding,” scientists’ frowning term for the ill-advised impulse to share one’s pastry with a wild creature. Will the black squirrels be chubbier, their health compromised by our whims? If unusually colored animals are protected or fed extra, will they breed more—and thus become common and lose their favored status?

No one has looked closely at these patterns until now. When I ask if animals judge one another by color, Carlen just shrugs: “We have no idea.” Animals use color for camouflage and sexual signaling, so we know they are not oblivious. (Peacocks are absurdly, impractically gorgeous only because peahens like them that way.) But do other animals demean, devalue, and ostracize by color—or is that a special human talent?


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.