World's 20 cutest wild creatures -- and where to find them
So why not travel in search of the cute?
According to a New York Times report from 2006 on several studies of cuteness, "cute images stimulate the same pleasure centers of the brain aroused by sex, a good meal or psychoactive drugs like cocaine."
We think cute is a lot better for you than cocaine.
We haven't included cute kittens, dopey dogs or anything else domesticated. The animals listed below live in glacial subzero temperatures, in torrid jungles, in deserts, in trees to high for us to climb, in breathtaking (literally, because of the high altitude) mountains and under the sea.
But they are all united by their irresistible (and sometimes inexplicable) appeal.
What would you say is the world's cutest animal? Let us know in the comments!
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Sluggish and serene, the sloth, found in the rainforests of South America, happens to have the same name as the Catholic vice. But sloths aren't lazy. They're just really, really slow.
They're so slow that algae has been known to grow on their coats.
Anyway, it's their relaxed, unhurried movements that perhaps makes them so endearing.
19. Pygmy hippopotamus
Just like its larger cousin, the pygmy hippopotamus has stumpy legs, a blunt snout and mad swimming skills.
But unlike its larger cousin, the pygmy hippopotamus is not one of the most dangerous animals in Africa. Being way smaller does that to you.
And without the threat of being mauled by a jaw full of teeth, it's easier to recognize that the hippopotamus -- when pygmy-sized -- can be pretty endearing.
Unfortunately being smaller often means being more vulnerable. The pygmy hippopotamus is an IUCN-listed endangered species. So while you may have seen pygmy hippos paddling away happily in zoos, they're a lot harder to spot in the wild.
The best bet may be somewhere in Sierra Leone, reputedly with the largest pygmy hippo population in the wild, such as Tiwai Island Wildlife Sanctuary.
18. Slow loris
With an unnervingly wide-eyed stare, the slow loris hails from the tropical jungles around Southeast Asia and is notable for its plush but strong limbs. Slow lorises can hang by their feet for hours at a time -- and often do.
But the slow loris, despite (or perhaps because of) its huggable appearance and languid manner is fairly venomous. The venom comes from a gland in their elbow, of all places, and is ejected through the teeth.
This venom, however, is unfortunately not enough to save the slow loris from the dangers of the pet trade; it is listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List.
Another reason we prefer to observe slow lorises in the wild.
There are five discrete species of slow loris, including the Bornean slow loris, which can be found on the island of Borneo in Southeast Asia and glimpsed on Borneo Eco Tours.
Maybe it's the bulging eyes, the slightly downturned mouth, the curly, prehensile tails or extremely long tongues that dart out like party blowouts, but chameleons are one of the more appealing reptiles.
Most famously, chameleons are known for the way they change color to reflect their moods, signal to mates or warn off enemies.
But even more remarkable is the peculiar way in which chameleons move, especially on the ground, in a rocking motion. Not the most efficient way of transportation, but definitely attention-grabbing.
Meerkats are a type of mongoose that live in the deserts of Africa -- from the Kalahari of Bostwana to the Namib of Namibia, South Africa and parts of Angola.
With meerkats it's not so much their faces, which, while far from ugly, are really no different from those of the common dwarf mongoose.
It's the way they stand, in the signature upright pose with their paws gathered demurely at the front.
And Meerkat Adventures specializes in short treks to meerkat grounds for 550 rand (US$70).
A 1997 paper from the Australian Institute concluded that koalas had "an iconic status in attracting foreign tourists." A survey of 115 Japanese tourists revealed that 75 percent of them "said that they hoped to see a koala when making the decision to come to Australia."
And no wonder. If anyone knows what cute is, it's the Japanese.
Unfortunately, koalas are not as sweet as they supposedly look.
"Koala experts," reported CNN, "say the creatures' behavior more often varies between the mildly cranky to the downright bad-tempered."
Their enduring popularity indicates that we don't really care.
At the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary in Brisbane, Australia guests can pet koalas -- hopefully one of the better-tempered ones.
But for the best chance of glimpsing these animals in the wild, you only need take a trip to the Otway Coast where koalas can be found chilling by the Grey River, Kennett River, Wye River and Wongarra.
These squat, aquatic birds with their sleek, debonair coats already have a secure position in our pop culture imaginations, from the classic "Mr. Popper's Penguins" to "Happy Feet," but we simply can't get enough of them.
There are 17 species of penguins in the world. Most of them are some version of black and white, none of them can fly, and all of them are excellent swimmers.
What's more surprising is that penguins are also excellent runners, despite their waddling walk, able to run as fast as most men.
Six out of the 17 species of penguin live in Antarctica, so the most enjoyable way to call on these birds is through a cruise in the region.
Compagnie du Ponant hosts cruises that depart from the southernmost tip of Argentina to Antarctica. A cruise starts at about US$10,000 and lasts for about 10 days.
A team of naturalists will be onboard -- we assume to help you differentiate between gentoo penguins and Adélie penguins, or king penguins and emperor penguins.
13. Red panda
Red pandas share little in terms of appearance with their monochromatic cousins, the great pandas.
With a bushy, ringed tail like a raccoon, pointed ears and reddish-brown coloring like a fox and short legs, these arboreal balls of fluff have always been difficult to classify.
The red panda sleeps with its tail wrapped around its body, and is identifiable by the russet fur with white patches on the snout, "eyebrows," cheeks and lining the ears.
There are far too few of these adorable animals in the wild, and their shyness makes them harder to find, so if you want guaranteed red panda contact it might be better to drop by one of the several conservation and research centers for panda in China, such as Chengdu Panda Base.
The research center also has enclosures for great pandas, the golden monkey and the South China tiger.
12. Beluga whale
About four meters long, the white, baby-faced beluga whale, which makes its home in the colder seas of the Arctic and sub-Arctic is about one-fifth the size of a blue whale.
With its relatively small size, benign facial structure, and the funny little lump on its forehead, called a melon, the beluga whale is undeniably cute.
While beluga whales in captivity can do tricks like chirp on command, or blow bubbles, for those who'd rather see this animal in the wild, Sea North Tours, based in Churchill, Manitoba Canada, has a "Beluga and Fort Tour."
Fun fact: Churchill is also known for its "polar bear jail," where bears who've wandered too far into town are incarcerated for their own safety.
11. Clown fish
Usually Pixar caricatures tend to make everything look cuter than in reality, but with the clown fish Nemo has nothing on the actual fish that inspired him.
Sure, clown fish can't talk or widen their eyes for comic effect, but they can do cooler things, like switch genders.
Clown fish can be found with their aquatic buddies the sea anemones. The sea anemone's poison -- which doesn't affect the clown fish -- protects the clown fish from predators and the clown fish pays for the protection by eating the anemone's leftovers and keeping the house clean.
Apo Island in the Philippines has a Marine Sanctuary with a clown fish city, with hundreds of clown fish milling about in bright orange schools.
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The chinchilla, an indigenous South American rodent, is another example of how dangerous it can be to be cuddly. The chinchilla was hunted almost to extinction in the19th century for its plush pelts.
According to Harold Meadow's "The Chinchilla," as quoted on Save the Wild Chinchilla, while humans have one hair per follicle, the chinchilla has 50.
That's pretty damn furry.
There are several reasons why seeing a chinchilla in the wild might be difficult today. Not only are they few in number, they also live at altitudes that spell out death for most of us valley-dwelling humans.
The closest you might be able to get is to visit Las Chinchillas National Reserve, a chinchilla sanctuary in Chile run by the Chilean National Forest Corporation (CONAF)(Spanish). Let's Go Chile, Chilean tourist company, has a guide on their website.
According to Amy Deane, founder of non-profit Save the Wild Chinchilla, the best place to observe chinchillas in the wild is in the mountains outside of the National Reserve (Reserva Nacional Las Chinchillas). It takes a two-hour walk, but it's worth the effort. "The wild ones are the cutest of all," says Deane.
Admission is 2,500 Chilean pesos (US$5) for adults and 1,000 Chilean pesos for children. A night in the cabins at the reserve costs 6,000 pesos per head.
Reserva Nacional Las Chinchillas is at Auco, Illapel, IV Region, Chile.
The CONAF office in Illapel (15 kilometers south of the reserve) is located at Provincia de Coapa, Vial Rebabarren 310, Illapel; +56 53 522 331.
According to Deane, however, the easiest way might be to contact her Save the Wild Chinchillas project through their Facebook page.
"People email me and then I meet them in town or explain to them how to get to our station," says Deane.
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9. Roe deer
Depending on where and when you are from, deer can mean venison, sports, roadkill, tick bags or pests.
But in the right context roe deer can be very "Disney," with their spindly legs and dewy eyes.
The roe deer is chestnut-brown, roughly the size of a goat, and native to England. According to the British Deer Society, it's not too difficult to spot roe deer on a walk in the woods.
"If you were to walk very quietly through any reasonable size wood for an hour immediately following first light you would probably see wild deer of one species or another," says their website.
Wildwood, a park in Kent, England is home to several species of deer, including the roe deer. Entry is £9.95 (US$15).
8. Bottlenose dolphin
In captivity bottlenose dolphins are praised for their intelligence and their therapeutic qualities -- swimming with dolphins is supposedly good for one's mental health.
In the wild dolphins can get aggressive and form gangs.
It doesn't really seem to matter for most people -- dolphins are still adorable. They may not be real smiles -- that's just the way their mouth creases -- but they look like they are.
Australia has Dolphin Wild Moreton Island Cruises for some quality dolphin watching, but bottlenose dolphins can be found in most places around the world except in very cold areas.
The alpaca, which has been a domesticated animal for thousands of years, is valued for its gloriously fleecy hair, which is used to make sweaters.
This fleecy hair also gives them a woolly, squeezable appearance.;
"Alpacas are cute despite the fact that they can be quite testy," says Miran Park, who was raised in Peru and has first-hand experience with these fluffy camels.
"They are animals that will come next to you and look at you with the most genuine eyes," says Park.
You can look an alpaca in the eye at any of the numerous alpaca farms in Peru, such as Mallkini, a farm with the tagline, "Alpaca Ranch and Adventure."
Machu Picchu is another great place for alpaca sightings; as a protected Incan ruin, alpacas can frolic without fear of getting shorn -- which some say decreases their cuteness considerably.
6. Bee hummingbird
No larger than a bee, it also acts like one, helping plants reproduce by transferring pollen as it flits from flower to flower sipping nectar. And it flits to a lot of flowers: These birds eat every 10 minutes. They just live life on a different scale. At a different pace.
5. Sea otter
Sure, these whiskered weasels of the sea are adorable. But sea otters are as clever as they are cuddly.
It's not just that they use rocks as tools to crack open clams and mussels for food, or even the way they sleep, floating face-up on the surface of the water with tangled kelp anchoring them in place.
It's really the "rafting" that wins you over. Sea otters are sociable, and float together in groups of up to a hundred, frequently clasping paws so that they don't drift away from each other.
At the Sea Otter Beach Front Eco Tours Resort in Port Alice, British Columbia, visitors are taken on day tours to see the wildlife, which naturally includes sea otters. Prices start at US$500 per person per night.
4. Harp seal
It's no coincidence that so many of the animals on this list also happened to be threatened, vulnerable or endangered species. Sometimes part of what makes the animal so cute -- a wealth of fluff, for example -- is exactly what makes the animal so appealing to other industries, like the captive pet industry or the fur industry.
Harp seal babies are covered in a downy, snowy white fur and were thus traditional targets for the fur industry, valued for their fluffy white pelts.
While the import of products made from these "whitecoat" pelts was banned in Europe in 1983, and commercial whitecoat hunting was banned in Canada in 1987, hundreds of thousands of seals are killed each year regardless.
Which doesn't make sense at all, because these things are much cuter alive.
3. Giant panda
The black and white coloring, the plump derriere, and the contemplative way they chew their bamboo: we could go on and on, listing the qualities that make the giant panda so endearing.
The panda's inefficient dining habits -- although it has the digestive system of a carnivore it eats like a herbivore, consuming up to 38 kilos of bamboo in a single day -- might have something to do with why it is endangered, as their picky diets make them extremely dependent on their habitat to survive.
What with poaching and habitat destruction, pandas have a tough time of it in the wild. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (whose logo is a stylized panda) there are only about 1,600 pandas left in the wild, as shown the Third National Survey Report on Giant Pandas (1999-2003).
Panda sightings are not guaranteed. After all, pandas do what pandas want, and what they want usually involves food, rather than posing for the camera.
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2. Philippine tarsier
As the smallest primate in the world, the arboreal, nocturnal Philippine tarsier has all the basic qualities of cute: enormous eyes set in a tiny body no bigger than a human fist and tiny knobbly paws with which it grasps onto tree branches.
Tarsiers are notoriously unhappy in captivity. According to the Philippine Tarsier Foundation, each tarsier needs at least a hectare of space, and captive tarsiers have been known to commit suicide by bashing in their own skulls.
While that isn't exactly cute, it does make it fairly obvious that the only chance you'll ethically be able to see a tarsier is in the wild.
The Philippine Tarsier Foundation runs the Philippine Tarsier and Wildlife Sanctuary in the forest of Corella, Bohol, where tarsiers roam freely.
1. Fennec fox
The fennec fox is a sandy nocturnal desert fox, immortalized in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's "The Little Prince" as the fox who wanted to be tamed.
As the smallest of the foxes (smaller than the domestic cat), with oversized ears like pumpkin leaves and tiny pointed faces, the fennec fox does look adorably, temptingly tamable.
Consequently commercial trapping is the greatest threat to the fennec fox; it's highly sought after in the captive pet trade and often captured and put on display for tourists visiting the area.
But for the enthusiasts who would rather observe this fox in the wild, there are still fennec foxes who make their homes in the Saharan desert and other dry, sandy areas of North Africa. This might be anywhere from Morocco to Egypt.
"We have some places like the Western desert. You might see the fox in the natural habitat," says Shawky. "But as you know," he warns, "they always run and hide."
"I can arrange two day tours to watch fennec fox," says Memphis Tours tour consultant Ahmed Fayez. "This tour will start from Cairo and end in Cairo. You can see that fennec fox at night."
What would you say is the world's cutest animal? Let us know in the comments!
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