When researching a species for the first time, I find the most fascinating aspect to be learning about an animal's cultural history - how it fits into the cultures, economies, art, religion, and history of the people who share its environment. Some of the stories I have come across have been truly fascinating. Consider the black-necked stork, the South Asian and Australian equivalent of Africa's saddle-billed stork. In India, the Mir Shikar people had a ritual for young men seeking to marry. They had to capture one of these imposing birds - alive. The task was not without its peril - the custom was finally discontinued in 1920, when one young man was killed by the stork he was attempting to capture.
One of the most interesting things about an animal's cultural history is that is constantly changing. A few years ago, very few people gave a moment's worth of thought to sloths. Now, due to their portrayal in pop culture, they are - for reasons I still don't completely understand - some of the most popular of all zoo animals. One hundred years ago, gorillas were moved in American and European culture as menacing, hulking brutes. In part due to the increased exposure of humans to gorillas in zoos (especially "hero" gorillas Jambo and Binti Jua) and studies on the apes in the wild, they now enjoy a reputation as gentle vegetarian giants. The same could be said for orcas - they went from the most feared creatures in the ocean to... Shamu. It's ironic that the newfound public love for orcas, which started in oceanariums such as SeaWorld, is now causing that species to disappear from marine parks.
History doesn't have to be ancient to be fascinating. Any description of the okapi inevitably settles around the fact that the mysterious forest giraffe was unseen by European eyes until as late as the turn of the last century. Play a game of word-association with anyone and mention the word "Raven", and you're almost sure to get the answer "Nevermore", a reference to the famous poem by Edgar Alan Poe. Poe lived out his last years in Baltimore, Maryland, which named its football franchise the Baltimore Ravens in tribute. Not surprisingly, the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore prominently features an exhibit of northern ravens, as well as having some in its animal ambassador program, who serve as mascots for the football team. Is it a plug for attention? Perhaps. But it also serves as a method of tying the animal as a symbol or mascot to the real, living, breathing creature.
Oftentimes, the cultural history of the animal plays a direct role in its conservation. The history of the sea otter, for example, would never be complete with a description of the fur trade, spearheaded by the Russians, which almost wiped this charming water-weasel from the face of the earth, with dire consequences for the kelp forests where it dwells. Or, closer to home, how the extermination of the American bison was brought about largely by the US Army's efforts to deprive the Lakota, Comanche, and other Plains Indian tribes of their most important food resource, thereby starving them into submission.
The cultural role of an animal tells us a little about that species... but it tells us a lot about us. It tells us how people through the world view animals and interact with them. When properly understood and channeled, it can become another tool in the quest to save animals from extinction. Many people in countries around the world do not realize that the animals that they share their lands with are unique to those lands. Developing an appreciation of the fact that they have the only stories about those animals - that their's is the only culture to incorporate them - can provide an adding impetus to protect them.