And Now, the Nominees for Official Wildlife Mascot of the COVID-19 Era

Photos of 11 animal nominees, plus a raccoon whose face is crossed out. Photos are repeated individually below.
Meet the nominees. (Photo credits with images below.)

You’ve seen those memes calling the raccoon the official animal of 2020 for wearing a mask, being an (almost) anagram of “corona,” and washing hands incessantly. Sounds sensible, till you see the holes — in the mask. Yup, a raccoon’s mask is an eye mask. I’m pretty sure the CDC designates that “utterly useless.” Plus, raccoons don’t care about social distancing.

In this time of enormous grief, loss, despair, and public health challenges––exacerbated by disinformation, inequities, and greed––we could use a comforting wildlife mascot that takes safety and social distancing seriously.

Also, the adorable trash pandas are happiest grazing at a buffet of garbage, germs be damned. Maybe raccoons stole this title like a stale donut.

Their fast track through the nomination — without giving most of us a chance to vote for other candidates — is arguably very 2020. But there’s more to our lives and social distancing challenges now than washing hands and wearing masks incorrectly, so we opened nominations back up.

Let’s meet the nominees for Official Wildlife Mascot of the COVID-19 Era.

1. Tufted Puffin

Fratercula cirrhata

A tufted puffin goes for a swim, looking smug about its orange mask and blond head tuft.
A tufted puffin goes for a swim, looking smug about its orange mask and blond head tuft.
Tufted puffin, Fratercula cirrhata. Public domain.

The tufted puffin has looks and charm, and is a little smug about it. But this puffin also:

  • Wears a face mask for months at a time––and would keep it on in Costco.
  • Stocks up on groceries efficiently, hauling up to 20 fish in their bill at once.
  • Nests in large, un-crowded burrows perfect for social distancing.
  • Doesn’t whine about needing a haircut to maintain those dashing blond tufts. A tufted puffin would never, ever wield weapons and demand the opening of salons.

2. Striped Pyjama Squid

Sepioloidea lineolata

A black-and-white striped pyjama squid
A black-and-white striped pyjama squid
Striped pyjama squid, Sepioloidea lineolata. Wikimedia Commons user Scubagirl85 (CC)

With a name like striped pyjama squid, how could we not nominate this? Inhabiting oceans around Australia, this cute cuttlefish is particular about spelling “pyjama” with a “y,” which reminds us we’d rather be in Australia. They also sometimes go by “dumpling squid,” — which makes us crave dumplings and want to support local, independent restaurants offering takeout. But this cephalopod’s qualifications go beyond amazing names. The striped pyjama squid:

  • Only wears p̶a̶j̶a̶m̶a̶s̶ pyjamas, but can change color quickly — suggesting that maybe it’s good to have a few different pairs.
  • Spends days lethargically buried in sand with an eye sticking out, which frankly sounds idyllic right now.
  • Can keep others away by releasing a poisonous substance. Its motto should be: “Cuttlefish––Not Cuddle-fish.”
  • Faces an ambiguous future; due to limited data, their conservation status is “unknown.” In these uncertain times, we relate.
  • Is prone to insomnia snacking. (I’m now an “active nocturnal forager.”)
  • Like us, is not actually a squid.

3. American Pika

Ochotona princeps

Looking like a furry potato with gray, round ears, the pika sits on a rock and gazes into the distance pondering its cuteness
Looking like a furry potato with gray, round ears, the pika sits on a rock and gazes into the distance pondering its cuteness
American pika, Ochotona princeps. Public domain: nature.ca

Pikas are arguably the most adorable of all wildlife, and we could use the comfort of their cuteness to soothe our anxiety and depression. Looking like spherical, furry potatoes, pikas have round ears, run around with flower bouquets in their mouths, and emit a loud “MEEP!” like a squeaky toy. True, they’re not much for mutual aid — they like to steal each other’s snacks — but these rabbit cousins:

  • Tend to stay way over six feet apart, meeping loudly if others get too close.
  • Get sick of their kids after a few months and chase them out of their territory. (OK, even if the former is relatable, the latter isn’t advisable.)
  • Gather and store a large food supply of plants into a haypile.
  • Follow stay-at-home orders when not being essential workers. After working hard all summer, they spend winters alone in dens under the snow mostly eating and dozing.
  • Take warnings and danger seriously. They’d pay attention to public health leaders — especially ones who point out eagles and can meep.
  • BONUS: Pikas even battle Donald Trump in this Pikas vs. Trump video game from the Center for Biological Diversity.

4. Gray Wolf

Canis lupis

A gray wolf sits on the ground and looks at the viewer
A gray wolf sits on the ground and looks at the viewer
Gray wolf, Canis lupis. Public domain

People who stoke xenophobia about others to detract from the harm they inflict remind us of the haters who’ve unfairly maligned these beautiful, resilient creatures for centuries. But gray wolves:

  • Practice mutual aid and cooperation.
  • Make time to play, even when things are difficult.
  • Keep socialization within the pack, or household family unit.
  • With these qualifications, should probably be president. (Though we’d take any of these animals at this point.)

5. Screaming Hairy Armadillo

Chaetophractus vellerosus

An armadillo with long hairs sits on the ground and looks off to the right
An armadillo with long hairs sits on the ground and looks off to the right
Screaming hairy armadillo, Chaetophractus vellerosus. Public domain

Are there any ways the screaming hairy armadillo is NOT relevant? This spectacular creature:

  • Comes equipped with PPE.
  • Lets all that hair grow out and dgaf what you think about it.
  • Screams if touched, insisting you keep your germy hands to yourself.
  • Even if that weren’t true, with a name like “Screaming Hairy Armadillo” couldn’t get covert Tinder dates––limiting irresponsible viral spread.

6. Six-Spotted Green Tiger Beetle

Cicindela sexguttata

Six-spotted green tiger beetle, Cicindela sexguttata. Photo by Ryan Hodnett (CC)

You could say this gorgeous, shiny beetle stands out in its field, but they prefer standing out in the woods. Apart from having good looks and solitary tendencies, the six-spotted green tiger beetle makes the cut because it has:

  • Six feet. Apart.
  • Pretty spots —maybe helping it spot disinformation?
  • A skittish practicality that helps with social distancing. They’ll fly out of the way and hide when startled, and even secrete a noxious liquid when threatened. (Oh, for the ability to do that when entitled extremists get in your face and threaten you for wearing a mask.)

7. Pale-Throated Three-Toed Sloth

Bradypus tridactylus

A pale-throated three-toed sloth, with a round, light face and dark fur around its eyes and mouth, looks content.
A pale-throated three-toed sloth, with a round, light face and dark fur around its eyes and mouth, looks content.
A pale-throated three-toed sloth (Bradypus tridactylus) I held in French Guiana at l’Association Chou-Aï

Beyond a winning smile to soothe our low spirits, this sloth claims a few traits that keep it in the r̶u̶n̶n̶i̶n̶g̶ slow-crawling. The pale-throated three-toed sloth:

  • Has no problem staying at home. With little energy, the sloth is up in a tree all day and night, climbing down only to poop.
  • Couldn’t wander to illicit and idiotic coronavirus parties even if tempted — the party would be over long before the sloth finally arrived.
  • Can rotate their head 270 degrees to look around. Don’t we need that kind of perspective right now?

8. Elf Owl

Micrathene whitneyi

A very pissed-off-looking face of a tiny elf owl gazes out from a little woodpecker hole in a large saguaro cactus.
A very pissed-off-looking face of a tiny elf owl gazes out from a little woodpecker hole in a large saguaro cactus.
Elf owl, Micrathene whitneyi. Photo by Julio Mulero (CC)

How can you not love the world’s smallest owl species — even if the elf owl wants nothing to do with you? A strong contender, this antisocial bird:

  • Likes living high in abandoned woodpecker holes in saguaro cacti––basically fed up and on rent strike, but in a spikey building.
  • Spends daytimes chilling at home, and is very definitely not going to the crowded beach on a sunny weekend.
  • Loathes the idea being touched so much, they will play dead if held.

9. Grey Go-Away Bird

Corythaixoides concolor

A grey bird with a tuft on its head looks down from a tree branch as though judging someone.
A grey bird with a tuft on its head looks down from a tree branch as though judging someone.
Grey go-away bird, Corythaixoides concolor. Photo by Bernard DUPONT (CC)

Admittedly, we may have to overlook some hypocrisy, given that grey go-away birds sometimes hang out in groups of 20 or so. But this judgmental and serious-looking bird gets nominated for one clear reason––they:

  • Call, “Go away!”––which would be incredibly useful at crowded parks and other public places. You’re hired, bird.
  • Presumably take to social media to scold their cousin, the bare-faced go-away bird, who refuses to wear a mask.

10. Nurse shark

Ginglymostoma cirratum

A nurse shark swims above a reef
A nurse shark swims above a reef
Nurse shark, Ginglymostoma cirratum. Photo via NOAA (CC)

We nominated the nurse shark to honor nurses on the front lines. This isn’t an ideal fit––these creatures sometimes snuggle up in piles, whereas nurses are generally careful about social distancing. But the nurse shark qualifies anyway, because this creature:

  • Naps during the day, and is thus well-suited to those night shifts many nurses dread.
  • Knows innovative ways to get oxygen while at rest, by pumping through the mouth––reminding us of the sobering reality of emergency care.
  • Mostly likes to stay put, but some prefer to travel farther afield––perfect for meeting local needs and filling travel nurse assignments wherever necessary.

11. Basic Scientific Literacy Wombat

Vombatus readsthemethodssectionus

A wombat looks over a copy of The Lancet, with a coronavirus story on the cover
A wombat looks over a copy of The Lancet, with a coronavirus story on the cover
Basic scientific literacy wombat, Vombatus readsthemethodssectionus. Original wombat image (CC)

Last but not least, the basic scientific literacy wombat may not technically exist, but we need it anyway. This creature:

  • Understands the difference between a virus and bacteria.
  • Reads and knows how to critique a full scientific research paper.
  • Grasps how vaccines work and why high vaccination rates matter.
  • Doesn’t share disinformation or conspiracy theories spread by bots.
  • Uses terms like “selection bias” and “small sample size” and “wide confidence intervals” and “For fuck’s sake, you aren’t being oppressed just because you can’t play golf.”
  • Eats racist and misinformed memes, then poops them out in satisfying little cubes. Regular wombats do the latter––maybe, when we’re feeling hopeless about some of humanity, they’ll rescue us yet.

Public health professional, writer, and pun perpetuator living in Seattle, WA.

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