You all saw the Instagram video, right? The one of the chimpanzee expertly scrolling through Instagram, looking at photos and videos? Super cute, I know! Exactly what we need to give us a warm fuzzy feeling during these tumultuous times.

Or not.

Screen capture from the video.

I’d ask you to take a closer look at that video, but I don’t want it to get any more hits, so you’ll just have to trust me when I point out that the chimp is in a room… in a house. And that house belongs to a guy who keeps, breeds, and exploits wild animals for publicity and profit.

“Bhagavan “Doc” Antle is the owner and operator of T.I.G.E.R.S. (The Institute of Greatly Endangered and Rare Species), also known as Myrtle Beach Safari, a wild animal attraction in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.” — Motherboard

I’m not going to go into all the reasons that Mr. Antle’s antics with wildlife are wrong or bad. He’s been covered a number of times in the media and if you’re interested, you can read more about him here. This paragraph from that article sums up one of the issues well —

“Zoo experts and animal welfare activists, in turn, accuse Antle of causing “the suffering of hundreds of tigers in the U.S” that “end up living miserable lives in conditions compassionate people who care about animals would consider inhumane.” All in the name of something the public largely cannot resist – adorable animal encounters.”

I’ve already blogged on the problem of roadside zoos, the laws (and lack thereof) surrounding captive wildlife, and why keeping such animals is dangerous to people and animals alike.

Instead, today I want to talk about those irresistible “adorable animal encounters” and try to make clear why clicking “like” and sharing these videos and images does a disservice to animals.

We live in a world where anyone can become an online sensation or “influencer” simply by posting content that regularly goes viral. In a never-ending social media feedback loop, the more viral the posts, the more followers a person gets, and so the more viral their posts go. Pretty soon, every post they make travels across social media platforms accumulating likes and re-posts by the thousands and even millions.

And, by definition, that means the influencer is shaping how millions of followers think about beauty, fitness, food, parenting, and other lifestyle choices. It should come as no surprise that even pets can become influencers.

So when people like Mr. Antle start creating viral videos of chimpanzees watching Planet of the Apes in a movie theatre and photos of people hugging lions and tigers and ligers and bears (many of which, by the way, are drugged for photo shoots), that sends a message that these animals are friendly and safe (they are not) and are thriving in their unnatural environments.


A healthy red-eyed tree frog in a normal position. Photo: Wikimedia Commons public domain, by Careyjamesbalboa (Carey James Balboa)

This true for many of the “cute” wildlife photos and videos we see shared across the internet. Remember those happy little tree frogs holding leaves as umbrellas? And the ones where the frogs are apparently dancing and, in one case, supposedly giving the photographer the finger? And frogs with snails on their heads? So funny, right?

And entirely staged–and often cruel. Those dancing frogs’ arms and legs were manipulated with wire or string and posed. In some cases, their hands and feet may have been forcibly fastened to the objects they appear to be holding.

Plus, frogs need water to stay naturally moist—the thought of shielding themselves from a light rain likely wouldn’t ever even cross their mind. But the heart-breaking part comes in the final assertion; the frog already doesn’t look to be in great condition, but the red bruises on its legs are pretty definite signs of potential injury. — Gizmodo

Did you like and share that “inspirational” video (intentionally not linked here) of a baby grizzly bear struggling up a steep snowy embankment to its mama? Or did you stop and think about how that film was made? Why that mother left the cub behind? What she was trying to avoid?

“For instance, at just over one minute into the video, the camera zooms extremely close to the bears. At the same time, the mother appears to look directly at the remote-controlled helicopter, and even appears to swat at the device—which then seems to cause the cub to fall back down the slope..” — Jason Bittel, National Geographic

Drone photographers have become a huge issue in wildlife protection. Where physical proximity or a zoom lens used to be necessary to get dramatic wildlife footage, now anyone with a drone can harass and endanger wildlife from above. And every time we get dewy-eyed over one of those videos and share it, we exacerbate the problem. Even after criticism, that grizzly video was popular enough that it is earning money for ad clicks on Youtube.


Mama bears do not like to be far from their cubs. Photo Credit: Frank van Manen / USGS (CC by 2.0)

Not only are the animals (and possibly the people) in those kinds of videos at risk, but the danger to other animals increases as well. In some cases they encourage the illegal pet trade. For instance, in the case of a viral video of children playing with lemur —

“What shocked the researchers was the fact that as the video began getting traction online, the volume of tweets of folks saying things such as “I want a pet lemur” and “where can I find one?” doubled exponentially.” — Mashable 

Of course, there will always be legit photos and videos of wildlife wandering onto people’s properties. And there are always going to be images of wildlife professionals handling and filming animals — veterinarians, zookeepers, biologists and the like, all of whom have training in safe wildlife handling and ethics.

But I’m asking you to be cautious about photos and videos of regular people treating wildlife as pets and of ordinary animals doing unnatural things. To help you out, here are some tips for spotting fake or exploitative photos and videos.

  • Wild animals being approached or handled by non-professionals
  • Drone footage of wildlife taken by non-professionals
  • Normally dangerous animals being depicted as harmless pets
  • Photos and selfies of people posing with wild animals, especially dangerous ones
  • Wild animals in unnatural positions or exhibiting unnatural behavior
  • Photos of different wildlife species posed together or stacked on top of each other
  • Wild animals living in people’s homes, riding in cars, walking on leashes, or being treated or dressed as children.

And don’t worry if you’ve already made the mistake of sharing a fake or exploitative image. Even professionals have been fooled. While the Smithsonian photo contest judges liked this ant photo enough to declare it a finalist in their photo contest, it took a sharp-eyed entomologist to point out that those kinds of ants don’t do that. When confronted, the photographer explained that “he fed seeds from different plants to the ants and lifted, placed, and stacked the ants on the branch himself. Once the ants were in these positions, he took the photograph.”

So just do your best to take a minute to think about the photo or film, resist the “like” button, and don’t share things that might be exploitative.