Carni K sent in an interesting story about Kellogg’s, the cereal company. Kellogg’s is suing the Maya Archaeology Institute (MAI), a non-profit Guatemalan organization aimed at protecting the local history, culture, and natural environment. Why? It uses a toucan in its logo.

For those of you who did not spend your youth eating highly sugared empty carbohydrates for breakfast, the toucan (specifically, Toucan Sam) is the mascot of Kellogg’s Froot Loops. The toucan is also a large-billed colorful bird indigenous to Central and South America, the Caribbean, and southern Florida.

While this sort of cultural cannibalism is certainly common in American culture, it is a bold move nonetheless for Kellogg’s to not only appropriate the toucan, but to claim that no one else has a right to represent the toucan.  Dr. Francisco Estrada-Belli puts it this way: “This is a bit like the Washington Redskins claiming trademark infringement against the National Congress of American Indians.”

And therein lies the problem: who is allowed to claim the symbolic use of this bird—an indigenous Guatemalan organization or a company that makes cereal and other convenience foods marketed to children and families?

To me, this brings up another question: what gives any of us the right to use the toucan at all? While cultural representations of animals may not directly harm animals, and have been central in human cultures for tens of thousands of years, they can contribute to a particular perception of those same animals. And animal advocates know that perception then shapes treatment. If we perceive an animal to be dumb or trivial, for example, then that animal may not seem worthy of our concern.

Many types of toucans, for example, are endangered. Of the more than 40 species making up their family, 35 are included on the International Union for Conservation of Nature red list, meaning that they are either endangered, threatened, or otherwise subject to concern.  Their troubled status comes not from people hunting or eating them, but from the increasing levels of habitat destruction in the tropical regions in which they live… which brings us back to the Maya Archaeology Institute.

The organization’s mission includes protecting Guatemala’s rainforests, including the animals and plants that live there. Kellogg’s, on the other hand, has made the toucan into a funny bird whose large nose lets him sniff out Froot Loops wherever they are hiding.

Who should have the right to represent the toucan?  Anyone?

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Margo DeMello has a PhD in cultural anthropology and teaches anthropology, cultural studies, and sociology at Central New Mexico Community College. Her research areas include body modification and adornment and human-animal studies.

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