They look like they’re wearing masks.
They often seem to be washing their hands.
So what better mascot than a raccoon to help promote good pandemic hygiene?
This is Kelly Lambert’s crusade. She’s a professor of behavioral neuroscience at the University of Richmond in Virginia who for the past year has lobbied anyone she can think of to support her cartoon superhero: a lab-coat-wearing raccoon named Kalo.
The list of those she has emailed and called includes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, Bill Nye the Science Guy, first lady Jill Biden, former first lady Michelle Obama, and even country singer Dolly Parton.
Lambert is convinced that Kalo, whose name is derived from the Greek word for “virtuous,” could do for coronavirus best-practices what Smokey Bear (familiarly known as Smokey the Bear) has done for forest fires.
Remember Smokey? The talking bear in the ranger’s hat? He first appeared in 1944, introduced by the Forest Service and War Advertising Council. During his reign, as star of the longest-running public-service ad campaign in U.S. history, the average annual number of wildfires, most because of human carelessness, has fallen from 167,277 to about 65,000 per year. “Only you can prevent forest fires,” the bear told us. We listened.
“Now we need another Smokey Bear moment,” Lambert says.
A nonpartisan, charismatic critter could be especially helpful now as millions of American children prepare to get coronavirus vaccines, and as some states consider mandating the shots as a condition of going to school, Lambert says. She worries about the “cognitive dissonance” and anxiety many children may suffer if their families oppose the vaccines. (“Science is our superpower!” says the motto on the raccoon’s website, Kalothehero.com).
To be sure, Smokey did his best work in a less partisan era. Even back in 1979, no one fussed after Captain Kangaroo starred in a public service announcement in which he encouraged a puppet moose to get vaccinated. But when Big Bird of “Sesame Street” tweeted a pro-coronavirus vaccine message this month, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, tweeted back: “Government propaganda . . . for your 5-year-old!” Perhaps Lambert’s raccoon – unaffiliated with public-anything – will fare better.
“A raccoon is a benign, friendly way to appeal to children, who may then help teach their parents,” Lambert says. “I’ve been amazed that there hasn’t yet been any significant public health campaign centered around these initiatives – it could have saved so many lives.”
She’s confident that Kalo can do the trick.
Not for nothing do cartoon animals appear on so many cereal boxes. Children respond strongly to marketing, as much research has shown, particularly when it includes adorable mascots. In one recent study, researchers offering healthy snacks to children visiting a zoo found the kids were 66 percent more likely to choose an option if it was paired with a cartoon animal.
Long before her Kalo campaign, Lambert earned a reputation for bold and quirky projects.
Two years ago, to investigate the impact of environmental stimulation on rats’ ability to learn, she gained international attention for teaching rats to drive tiny cars to get Froot Loops cereal.
In another rat project, Lambert compared two groups of rodents, one that had to dig to find Froot Loops (“worker rats”) and another that was simply given them (“trust-fund rats”). The worker rats were later more inclined to work harder to solve a difficult puzzle.
Lambert has also studied rodents and primates in projects that have persuaded her that animals, including many humans, get smarter in some important ways after they reproduce. This theory also made international news.
Her efforts on behalf of Kalo, whom she introduced last year in an essay for Scientific American, have so far been disappointing.
She never heard back from the CDC, although NIH invited her to apply for a grant. The World Health Organization said it would look into it. The National Ad Agency never responded. The Virginia governor’s office said no more than that it was an interesting idea. No word from Obama, Biden or Nye – although Lambert isn’t sure they read her entreaties – while Parton, reached through a mutual acquaintance, passed.
So far, her only two steady allies have been Katie McBride, the cartoonist who designed Kalo, and Temple Grandin, the celebrated author and expert in autism and animal behavior. Lambert and Grandin had met when Lambert invited her to speak to one of her classes.
“I gave her some input and told her you need to work on this,” Grandin said in a phone interview. “It’s a very cute idea, and it could be very helpful.”
Grandin helped Lambert with a contest on the Kalo site last year, in which children wrote in about their post-pandemic plans.
One of the winners, 9-year-old Alera Cetrulo of Santa Barbara, Calif., wrote:
“After Covid-19 I will roam the country
“Free of quarantine.”
Lambert takes Kalo’s mission personally.
Calling on her own childhood experiences, she worries that children will be torn between wanting to please a teacher they love – and keep going to school – while being loyal to their families, who may object to the vaccines.
“I know this would have been my story, because I grew up around very conservative people,” Lambert says. “So I thought that some type of campaign that allowed Kalo to educate the kids about vaccines and viruses would trickle down to their vaccine-hesitant parents. The partisan approaches and nasty insults were never going to persuade someone to consider new information.”
Instead, Lambert says she hopes that Kalo can model best practices such as social distancing, hand-washing, mask-wearing – and vaccine-getting. Research has found that proper mask-wearing alone could greatly reduce coronavirus casualties.
Kalo has a couple of issues that may need finessing. The raccoon’s “mask” is not ideally positioned for covid protection and that hand-washing? It’s really more often a foraging behavior in running water, Lambert concedes. But hey, bears don’t really talk or wear hats, do they?
“That’s the whole point of creating a fictional character,” Lambert says.