Wildlife conservation is already facing ongoing challenges, such as illegal poaching for bushmeat or traditional medicines, the exotic pet-trade, and urban expansion causing human-wildlife conflict. Now, with the rise of digital marketing within the last decade, wildlife conservation is facing yet another threat: social media influencers.
A simple search on Instagram regarding certain species (especially primates) will bring you up to speed. For example, the top results for “#chimpanzee” consist of a video of a chimpanzee running around in a diaper, one drinking strawberry milk, and another being cuddled and kissed. Zoonotic diseases aside, the inappropriate handling of wildlife might actually be doing far more harm than meets the eye.
Social media influencers are exactly what their name suggests. They are individuals who have a large following and whose actions, beliefs, and comments can have an impact on others. It is now becoming a rising problem that wildlife and exotic animals are being used to build such influence and this is often consequently misrepresenting wild animals to an expansive uninformed audience. A picture can paint a thousand words, and in the hands of conservation influencers, they can be damaging.
Wildlife placed in human environments or mimicking human actions seem to grab the public’s attention easily. A clear example of this is the use of exotic animals in circuses. Outside of the circus realm, exotic and wild animals are being exploited in unnatural human environments, such as monkeys in diapers and sleeping in a bed, chimpanzees shampooing their keeper’s hair, or a lion being walked like a domesticated dog. These are all human actions that exploit animals for the sheer purpose of entertainment. Influencers will post these behaviors on social media for engagement; however, these social platforms only portray a very small portion of the animal’s daily activity. What happens for the other vast majority of time when they are not being filmed?
Unlike our companion animals, wild animals genetically have wild instincts and when we restrict an animal’s opportunity to perform natural behaviors, they may develop abnormal ones as a result (Garner 2005, 107). These animals are trained or raised in these humanized settings and may display some stereotypies. There is no doubt that these behaviors are not filmed and posted as it does not benefit the influencer. Additionally, the veterinary profession often teaches of the Five Freedoms for animals under human control (FAWC, 1979). The expression of natural behavior is listed as one of those five and influencers should respect the responsibility of providing the animals the freedom to express themselves naturally.
Additionally, influencers who are posting these humanized versions are misrepresenting the species by exhibiting unnatural behaviors and by giving a false idea about the safety of a human’s presence with a wild animal. Both are not found in the animal’s natural environment and by wrongly portraying these fantasies it is creating danger for humans as well.
Theoretically, consider an influencer posting a video that shows a sub-adult lion jumping on them to exhibit a “hug” with a caption or dialogue suggesting the behavior is out of love. There is already an issue when it comes to labelling this wild animal with anthropomorphic behavior, but moreover, it portrays that lions can display these seemingly loving actions and are able to be interacted with humans. This misinforms the general public, especially those who aren’t privy to the history of this particular lion, its humanized upbringing, and captive circumstances. This goes for all wildlife species that are being exploited on social media. To make matters worse, once this distorted representation of the true nature of these animals is picked up by a viral account, it is no longer in the hands of the influencer.
Regardless of the fact that the influencer might have tried to include text referencing conservation awareness or an education-related caption, once it goes viral, that content is missing. Often these posts will (as the term “viral” suggests) spread rapidly and within a few days, the entire so-called educational post will have been taken out of context and spread to millions. They can appear on many pages that aren’t even conservation or wildlife-specific i.e. The Dodo, WorldStar, or Luxury, purely because they are deemed cute or exhilarating.
This spreading only fuels the exotic pet trade. It depicts wildlife as cute animals that can have fun interactions with a human in a harmless manner. The exact opposite of what wildlife should be conveyed as; wild animals are wild animals.
Conservation awareness, education, and fundraising don’t need to come at a cost to animals. From an ethical standpoint, these same goals can be achieved without depriving animals from natural behaviors and environments. For example, taking juvenile captive chimpanzees to the premiere screening of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, has absolutely no benefit to chimpanzee conservation. It is purely about exploiting wild animals in a humanized setting for publicity. This applies even if animals are raised from birth or a young age and there is an element of human imprinting. Those things should not automatically result in this animal spending its lifetime in human company and environments. Despite the animal’s inevitable affiliation with humans during development, they still possess wild animal behaviors and they should be encouraged, whilst human interaction discouraged.
On occasion, influence is used for good, like raising awareness about world climate issues to their followers. For example, these devastating Australian bushfires prompted some influencers to ask their followers for help with donations toward communities and wildlife through reliable organisations. Often, they gave facts about the devastation to their international audience and interestingly enough, they didn’t need to exploit a wild animal to spread their message.
It can be easy to fall into the trap of wanting to interact with wild animals. Too often young veterinary students and professionals are seen volunteering at sanctuaries to gain experience with exotic species, however they are unaware of the negligible practices that are taking place to acquire this experience. Even the author admits to falling into this trap, and wanting to handle all wildlife species like domestic animals prior to researching conservation and working with wildlife. Both young veterinary professionals and the authors initial perspectives were likely shaped by a misconception of specific animals portrayed through social media.
Although these influencers cannot be stopped and their posts snowball out of control so easily, it doesn’t mean conservation efforts are futile. Continue to support conservation efforts you know are reliable. If you see a post on Instagram about a wild animal being handled inappropriately, research and question it, make your thoughts heard (politely) and create a discussion. Discuss what kinds of natural behaviors the species might have and what sort of message this post is sending to the uninformed public.
As veterinary professionals remember to ask yourself: how much education and awareness is really being shared if you are seeing non-natural behaviors?
Garner, Joseph P. 2005. “Stereotypies and Other Abnormal Repetitive Behaviors: Potential Impact on Validity, Reliability, and Replicability of Scientific Outcomes.” ILAR Journal 46 (2): 106–117. https://doi.org/10.1093/ilar.46.2.106
Press Statement: Farm Animal Welfare Council. FAWC. 1979.