Editor’s note: John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion and creator of CNN’s Change the List project. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
John D. Sutter, (CNN) — Kit Skogsbergh can see it now.
“He would be a sidekick,” she told me. “He would have a soft and soothing voice. … He would kind of be like Piglet in the Pooh movies because he would be a little cautious and scared of things, but once he knew the plan and how things worked he would warm up to it and maybe by the end of the movie he might not have to roll up into a ball (and hide). He’d be able to face things head on.”
The 32-year-old from Pasadena, California, recently filed a petition on Change.org asking Disney to make an animated character out of a pangolin, a little-known, scale-covered mammal that’s notoriously shy and, to Kit’s point, can protect itself from pretty much anything in the wild — lions, tigers — by rolling up into a ball.
The pangolin is being trafficked toward extinction — sold for its scales, which are used in traditional medicine, and for its meat, which is a delicacy in Vietnam and China. Pangolins are traded by the ton.
Disney could give the pangolin the celebrity it needs to survive.
I’d encourage you to sign Kit’s petition at Change.org.
If people cared about the pangolin the way they care about tigers or elephants, it easily could be saved from extinction. The trouble: Few seem to realize these awesomely introverted animals exist. They’re little studied and barely understood. They’re also not conventionally cute, which makes it easier for conservation organizations and the public to write them off as expendable. Yet they are essential, valuable creatures.
I recently went to Vietnam and Indonesia as part of CNN’s Change the List project to document the massive illegal trade in endangered pangolin species. I hadn’t heard of pangolins before readers voted for me to cover the illegal animal trade as part of that project; and Kit hadn’t heard of them until she read the story last week.
“I got about halfway through (the story) and my stomach hurt so bad I couldn’t finish it,” Kit told me last week. “I had this nagging feeling, you know, to do something about it.”
Kit’s petition — titled “Help beautiful and mysterious pangolins by featuring them in an animated movie!” — had 1,425 signatures as of Monday morning. At least 13 other readers also started petitions urging Disney to put a pangolin character in an animated film or short, according to Pulin Modi, a senior campaigner at Change.org.
Disney and Disney Pixar have the reach to make the pangolin popular. And they don’t have to do it out of the goodness of their hearts. It could be a hit. Pangolins are the ultimate underdog — lovable and secretive, curious and little-known.
Mother pangolins carry their babies around on their backs; pangolins hang from trees by their tails; and their tongues are longer than their bodies.
Plus, Disney already has a choice of names. CNN readers are voting on a name for pangolin P26, which was rescued from the wildlife trade and was recently released back into the wild in Vietnam. Some of the names would be perfect for an animated character: Pemalu, which is Indonesian for “shy”; Bao, Vietnamese for “protection.” Or Percival, which is alliterative and fun.
“When you introduce a character in a Disney film the animal suddenly gets more recognition and people start talking about it,” said Kit, who is a Disney fan.
“That education and awareness is what’s going to help shape future generations’ minds. Maybe we can start with younger people and they can grow up not wanting to eat the pangolin.”
It might seem far-fetched that any Disney viewer would eat pangolin. But not for Kit, who is Chinese-American and who told me her father likely has consumed endangered wildlife products while doing business in China, possibly including pangolin.
It’s been a source of family conflict.
“It’s like talking to a piece of cheese, you just don’t get anywhere,” she said of her conversations with her dad about the welfare of endangered animals. “It’s funny to him that people are concerned about what happens to an animal — because it’s just an animal, it’s nothing more than that. It doesn’t offer anything more than food or nourishment or medicinal properties. He laughs and says it makes you live longer or it makes your skin nice. And he’ll say, ‘You’re crazy! You Americans!'”
She doesn’t think she’ll be able to persuade her dad to change, but younger generations may be the ones to save animals like pangolins and rhinos, she said.
And Disney could reach them.
Kit’s own story is proof it could work.
Kit was born in the United States, and she developed a fondness for animals when she was young. Her parents valued animals for their function — Doom the Doberman’s ability to protect their home, their ducks’ eggs — but she saw them as friends.
“Maybe I didn’t have enough friends and the animals were always super friendly all the time,” she said. “I feel like it’s pretty easy to make friends with animals.” She now has three cats — Cheezburger, Monster and Ninja — and a rabbit named Bunny.
She became an advocate for animals because she got to know them.
“As a Chinese-American, I also want to speak up because the demand in China is helping drive the demand for pangolins to be killed for meat and medicines,” she writes in the Change.org petition. “I can tell you many Chinese citizens do not support this cruelty, and I believe we can bring wildlife advocates from around the world together to ask Disney to take this simple, fun, positive step to help pangolins.”
“It didn’t cost me anything but half an hour of my time,” she said of the petition.
And it would take far less time to sign it.