But one highly incongruous place to find these cute, polyester-filled plush animals is strapped to the front of a massive truck. Why do drivers do this?
A 2005 investigation by The New York Times revealed a compelling explanation. Think of the plush adornments like the decorative figures that adorn the bows of ships. By having a mascot or symbol of sorts at the front, both trucks and sea vessels are broadcasting their identity to the world.
In the case of trucks with cuddly animals, the message seems to be that truckers are largely playful and harmless. Maybe the need for communicating that message comes from how the rest of the world perceives supply trucks—as enormous road beasts with the capability to dominate lanes, their spiked wheels a subversive message to keep away.
“There was some sort of heraldic device to deny the fact of this gigantic machine,” Monroe Denton, a lecturer in art history at the School of Visual Arts, told the Times. “You would have these humanizing forms, anthropomorphic forms—a device that both proclaims the identity of the machine and conceals it.”
Stuffed animals can also be found strapped to the front of garbage trucks and are often “rescues”—toys salvaged from the trash that might be imperfect or aged but still give the vehicle some personality. It’s a kind of customization that falls in line with bumper stickers.
“It's hard, it's dirty and they're outside in the elements,” Kelly Horn of River Valley Disposal in Columbia, Pennsylvania told Lancaster Online. “It's not like they have a desk where you can put pictures of your family. They are just trying to personalize things and have some fun.”
Other cultures assign different meaning to the stuffed accessories. In Southeast Asia, for example, some believe drivers hang playthings from their vehicles to occupy ghosts and prevent them from getting bored and causing accidents.
In England, however, some sanitation companies ban the practice, fearful a child might run into the road chasing after a toy.
Ultimately, the stuffed bears or penguins can help demystify drivers, who can largely disappear behind their enormous machines. Seeing a kangaroo dangling from a garbage truck might make you less annoyed by the fact you’re stuck behind it.
[h/t The New York Times]
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