The Ugly Animal Society – Review (Brighton Sci Fest)

A very ugly animalThe panda gets too much attention. Yes it’s cute, but did you know, the main reason it was chosen for the logo of the WWF is black and white equals cheaper printing costs? Biodiversity means every animal on the planet deserves our conservation efforts, and creator of The Ugly Animal Preservation Society, Simon Watt, thinks it’s time to throw the spotlight on some of nature’s less glamorous creatures.

To this end he gathered together a diverse collection of geeky performers to each champion their favourite ugly, endangered animal. The audience then get to vote which will be the mascot of their local branch at the end of the show. Simon describes it as: “a stand-up comedy night with a conservation twist.” It ran on a Friday night as part of the Brighton Science Festival, so I checked it out…

First up was Punk Science – two lads who aren’t strictly punks, although they did have a guitar, and aren’t scientists either, although they did deliver biology-based, audience-participation physical comedy. They chose the animal with probably the rudest name on the planet: “Pseudobiceros hancockanus”, a species of aquatic flatworm. P. hancockanus are hermaphrodites with two penises, so we were treated to a bout of live penis-fencing, courtesy of two intrepid audience members (and some props!). The species is neither endangered, nor that ugly, but scores points for digging out that fabulous name.

Up next was Helen Arney. The “geek songstress” from Festival of the Spoken Nerd got across an, obviously genuine, love for her favourite animal with joyful affection and charm. The Axolotl is a unique creature that remains in an immature state its whole life and can regenerate almost any part of its body. Both properties I’m sure we could all learn from, in one way or another. Unfortunately, as Helen was self-defeatingly keen to point out, they’re actually really cute – in an ugly kind of way.

Ugly Animal Preservation SocietySarah Bennetto argued for the lowly dung beetle with affecting enthusiasm. This is the same insect revered as sacred by the ancient Egyptians, who called them Scarabs. Helen’s act was full of other fascinating factoids about the bug with the most repulsive dining habits in the world, such as the fact that they navigate by the stars and will only push dung balls in a straight line.

Simon Watt, biologist, BBC presenter, and creator of the show, plumped for the Canadian blue-grey tail-dropper slug; a creature that leaves its bottom behind to escape predators. He also compered, introducing each act, and occasionally wandering off on his own hilarious stand-up tangents.

Lewis Dean valiantly championed a hopeless cause arguing for the Sulawesi macaque. Anyone claiming any primate is ugly when we are such close relatives has an uphill struggle on their hands, but Lewis had a specific angle to push: “I don’t want you to look at this angle,” he said, “I want you to look at that angle.” He added: ”Some of you might be thinking, ‘ooh, look at his bum!’ but that’s not a him, and that’s not a bum. And don’t try to explain that to children at the zoo…”

The most persuasive performer of the evening was Steve Cross, who argued with the zeal of either a true believer or marketing professional, I’m not sure which. The naked mole rat is an undeniably aesthetically challenged critter, easily mimicked by gluing eyes on a dildo. It’s not endangered, but at least that means the chances of having to change all your stationary if it were to go extinct is very low.

Dan Schreiber closed the show with by far the ugliest of all the beasties. Pubic lice are apparently facing massive deforestation from women everywhere opting for brazillians. Being a freakishly hairy man, Dan promised he would volunteer himself as a nature reserve if he won the vote. Bet he’s glad he didn’t.

The UAPS is a completely unique evening’s entertainment, with plenty of knowledge nuggets thrown in amongst the giggles. This was only the show’s second run, but Simon hopes to take it on the road and there are shows planned in Edinburgh, Bristol and Newcastle. In Brighton the audience were swayed by Steve Cross’s fervour – and the Naked Mole Rat had its day. So what will be your town’s mascot?

Ugly animal picture courtesy Brighton Science Festival

Article by Simon Makin

March 2, 2013

Simon Makin is an ex-post-doc researcher in auditory perception turned journalist. Follow him on twitter @SimonMakin.

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