'That's actually a fear grimace': The flow-on effects of the exotic animal selfie (2024)

From its very beginning, YouTube hasfeaturedanimals, from cute cats tomore exotic species.

But there is a dark side behindthese videos; it may be helping to promote the illegal trade of exotic and endangered animals, according to research published inPLOS One.

The researchershave lookedat how people react to such videos, and believe this could be normalising the illegal industry and driving the exotic pet trade.

Study co-author Anne-Lise Chaber of theUniversity of Adelaide researches the illegal wildlife trade and its threats to both public health and biodiversity.

"People don't realise that dealing with these animals in the way they are being handled in thesevideos is not only an issue for biosecurity … but also] a conservation issue and a welfare issue," she said.

The dark side of 'cute' animal videos

'That's actually a fear grimace': The flow-on effects of the exotic animal selfie (1)

The study looked at how peoplecommented onaselection of viral YouTube videos featuring either primates or big cats.

The videos all depicted "free handling"— the animal was directly interactingwith a human (or other animal like a domestic dog), or in captive or domestic settings.

In other words, situations where it was not natural behaviour for the animal.

"It's normalising this totally unnatural interaction," Dr Chaber explained.

Comments on the videos werecategorised bytheir text and emoji use — for instance, "Oh, that's so cute" would be considered to be a positive, and"Oh, that's awful. It's cruel" would be a negative.

Theresponses were consistently, on average, positive.

Zara Bending, an expert on the exotic animal trade at the Centre for Environmental Law, Macquarie University who wasnot involved in the research, said other studies havemade similar conclusions.

While you may not be going out there to buy a tiger yourself, your likes send a different message.

"Promoting activities like pet ownership online and taking selfies is permissive to those behaviours," Ms Bending said.

"The animalselfie is the new wildlife trophy."

While what you see on the surface may seem cute, what might be going on behind the camera could have a large psychological impact on the animal, Ms Bending warned.

There are a whole range ofharmful behaviours and practices that an exotic pet may have been subject to.

"I've seen so many selfies and so many chimps that have been taught to [smile] to make people think they're happy …that's actually a fear grimace," Ms Bending said.

"[It may look] romantic and lovely and cute and cuddly — but it's big business."

The illegal wildlife trade is massive

The illegal wildlife trade is the most significant threat to species globally after habitat loss, MsBending said.

Endangered species are captured, bred, smuggled and traded not only as exotic pets, but also for their body parts as meat, jewellery, trophies, or medicine.

And it's a growing industry.

"It is the fourth-largest global illicit trade behind narcotics, humans, and counterfeit products," Ms Bending said.

Online markets and social media have only helped it grow.

"Social media is the most common place a person will advertise animals for sale. The dark web isn't being used — the clear web is where most of the buyers are," Ms Bending said.

In 2018, the World Wid Fund for Nature (WWF), TRAFFIC (the wildlife trade monitoring network)and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) formed theCoalition to End Wildlife TraffickingOnline, partnering with 39 tech companies, includingeBay, Google, Microsoft and TikTok, to prevent trafficking of exotic animals online.

But the trade has proved difficult to shut down.

'That's actually a fear grimace': The flow-on effects of the exotic animal selfie (2)

Traders use code words, includingPokémon names, to avoidthe detection and removal of their listings.

"As soon as we [locate]these websites and issue takedown notices … they pop up again," Ms Bending said.

"It's like a game of a whack-a-mole."

How you can help

The recent University of Adelaide study identified apotential solution to the trade in exotic animals: public education.

The researchers found there was a significant drop in positive comments associated with exotic animal videos on YouTube in 2015.

Georgia Moloney, the study's lead author, attributed this to the Tickling is Torturecampaign released that year, which aimed to reduce exploitation of the slow loris —a primate native to South-East Asia.

"Once this information was released to the public, people recognised that actually, this footage wasn't OK," MsMoloney said.

"The public need to have access to credible information about [the status of these exotic animals] sothey can make an informed decision before they engage in such content."

She said social media companies should take responsibility for enabling the distributionof exotic animal videos and work harder to moderate that content.

Since 2017, Instagram has posted warnings about animal abuse on wildlife photos, similar to how it now warns about COVID-19misinformation.

"The public can really push forchange to happen, whether it's with the exotic pet trade, whether it's for COVID, whatever the issue is, and [social media platforms] do have a massive responsibility in [facilitating this change]," MsMoloney said.

Dr Chaber said normalisation of exotic petswas the biggest issue.

"We should stop normalising this kind of unnaturalinteraction with wildlife … because as soon as we normalise it, people will start doing it more, and even legislatively, it will be more and more difficult to try to control it," she said.

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'That's actually a fear grimace': The flow-on effects of the exotic animal selfie (2024)


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