Well-Meaning Animal Lovers May Be Fueling the Exotic Pet Trade in Unexpected Ways

The internet is full of cute animal videos. There are puppies sliding down slides, kittens in baskets, people and lion cubs cuddling on couches, chimpanzees riding tricycles… These pictures and videos may seem harmless, but when it comes to social media posts featuring exotic animals, the reality isn’t so cute. While liking or sharing videos of “cute” exotic pets may seem harmless, viral videos of exotic pets can put species at risk of extinction and perpetuate practices that are unsafe for people and animals in human care. In today’s attention economy¹, we support posts and creators by engaging with their content. We can all fight the exotic pet trade by being conscious of what we support when we “spend” our likes, comments, and shares.

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Videos and photos of exotic pets typically receive overwhelmingly positive responses on social media. These posts and their responses can make people think that dangerous practices are normal and acceptable, and also lead the public to think these animals are less endangered in the wild.2,3

Photos and videos featuring exotic animals also often remove important context necessary to evaluate the welfare of the animals featured. We see tiger cubs playing in an apartment, but not the moment these cubs were prematurely separated from their mother, or the poor conditions in which they will live out their lives once they become too large and dangerous to interact with just a few months later.4 The bigger picture is rarely so “😍😍😍.”

The case of the slow loris exemplifies the problems the internet can create for endangered species. Around 2010, viral videos of these nocturnal primates being “tickled” and eating rice balls led to an increase in the demand for lorises as pets.5 The sad truth is that the lorises raising their arms to be ‘tickled’ are actually displaying a fear response – the lorises raise their arms to access glands that secrete an oil that becomes toxic when combined with their saliva.6 In addition to being trafficked as pets, the popularity of lorises has also led to their trafficking to be used as photo props for tourists throughout Asia and parts of Turkey; pop singer Rihanna posted a selfie with a loris in Thailand in 2013.7 Unfortunately, demand for slow lorises has impacted their populations in the wild, and all species of slow loris are now vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered.8 In addition to being threatened by habitat loss, these animals have to navigate the treacherousness of being “adorable” in the eyes of the internet.

An accredited zoo or aquarium, or someone who works at one, may post pictures that show them in contact with less dangerous animals. However, the person will usually be wearing a uniform, and they will never share photos of people in close contact with dangerous animals like large carnivores or primates unless a barrier is between the keeper and the animal.

Social media is also a threat to the cheetah. Popular accounts, often in the Middle East, depict pet cheetahs as status symbols, and demand for pet cheetahs has led to these endangered cats being trafficked from the wild.9

While social media websites like Instagram10,11 and Tinder12,13 have taken steps to warn users about what animal content may put animals at risk, it is up to us to ask questions about the context in which the animals we see online live before liking or sharing a post. There isn’t a golden rule for which animal content to engage with online, but there are a few guiding principles we can follow to allocate our likes and shares more judiciously, and avoid inadvertently supporting the exotic pet trade. First, avoid engaging with content that shows people and animals in close contact, especially if the animals appear to be in a residential home or are wearing human clothes. To get your fix of ethical animal content, choose reputable wildlife journalists, zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, or animal sanctuaries accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries to follow on social media.

At the core of this issue, there is a lot of hope. Ultimately, people care about wild animals and hold a deep love for them. In a biodiversity crisis, it is important that people care enough to act on behalf of wildlife. However, it is important that our love for wild animals is directed towards organizations dedicated to the conservation of animals in the wild and the best welfare practices for animals in human care. By staying informed and being critical consumers of media that features wildlife, we can ensure that our love for animals is not perpetuating harmful practices.

References

  1. Joy, A. (2021, February 18). The attention economy: Where the customer becomes the product. Business Today Online Journal. Retrieved December 28, 2021.
  2. Moloney, G. K., Tuke, J., Dal Grande, E., Nielsen, T., & Chaber, A.-L. (2021). Is YouTube promoting the exotic pet trade? analysis of the global public perception of popular YouTube videos featuring threatened Exotic Animals. PLOS ONE, 16(4).
  3. Ross, S. R., Vreeman, V. M., & Lonsdorf, E. V. (2011). Specific image characteristics influence attitudes about chimpanzee conservation and use as pets. PLOS ONE, 6(7).
  4. Learn more. Big Cat Sanctuary Alliance. (2021, February 11). Retrieved December 28, 2021.
  5. Anucha, K. (2013, August 12). ‘slow loris tickling’ video points to online peril for Endangered Species. The Guardian. Retrieved December 28, 2021.
  6. Lombardi, L. (2020, August 3). Pet trade’s “cute” and “adorable” label endangers the slow loris. Mongabay Environmental News. Retrieved December 28, 2021.
  7. Kitson, H., & Nekaris, K. A. I. (2017). Instagram-fuelled illegal slow loris trade uncovered in Marmaris, Turkey. Oryx, 51(3), 394–394.
  8. IUCN Red List – Slow Loris. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. (n.d.). Retrieved December 28, 2021.
  9. Tricorache, P., Nowell, K., Wirth, G., Mitchell, N., Boast, L. K., & Marker, L. (2018). Pets and pelts: Understanding and combating poaching and trafficking in Cheetahs. Cheetahs: Biology and Conservation, 191–205.
  10. Daly, N. (2021, May 3). Exclusive: Instagram fights animal abuse with new alert system. Animals. Retrieved December 28, 2021.
  11. Instagram. (n.d.). How do I learn more about wildlife exploitation? Instagram Help center. Retrieved December 28, 2021.
  12. Take down the tiger selfies. Tinder Newsroom. (n.d.). Retrieved December 28, 2021.
  13. Eschner, K. (2017, August 15). The big unsexy problem with Tiger Selfies. Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved December 28, 2021.

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