It’s all seems very innocent, checking into Facebook to be greeted by the latest rash of cute animal videos doing the rounds, along with them are videos of animal cruelty. Ironically they look different, but the impact is opposite to their appeal.
I love animals, I have always had dogs, I grew up on a couple of farms, I have a hard time going to the zoo, but I understand their existence in this world we have built. I’ve been to Seaworld in Florida when I was little being splashed by Shamu, but now I am old enough to understand that actions have consequences.
Years ago pictures of a furry little wide eyed primate eating a banana graced my feed almost every time I looked at my feed. Some time later there was a campaign called “tickle is torture”, which brought to my attention that our tendency to anthropomorphise animals had once again been shown to be wrong. Behaviour that internet users had been identifying as enjoyment and play was in fact stress and fear. We made the assumption that because we like to be tickled or touched, so did the loris.
The Loris’ Facebook fame led to a rise in the demand of the slow loris as an exotic pet.
A study was conducted by the Nocturnal Primate Research Group at the Oxford Brooks University in the United Kingdom into public perceptions of cute videos of threatened species, specifically the slow loris.
“Focussing on a group of threatened and globally protected primates, slow lorises, we quantify public attitudes towards wildlife conservation by analysing 12,411 comments and associated data posted on a viral YouTube video ‘tickling slow loris’ over a 33-months period. In the initial months a quarter of commentators indicated wanting a loris as a pet, but as facts about their conservation and ecology became more prevalent this dropped significantly.” Nekaris, KAI, Campbell, Nicola, Coggins TG, Rhode, EJ & Nijman, V (2013)
The problem is with exposure. Many of these animals are relatively unknown, which is partially their saving grace. “Slow loris videos that have gone viral have introduced these primates to a large cross-section of society that would not normally come into contact with them.”Nekaris, KAI, Campbell, Nicola, Coggins TG, Rhode, EJ & Nijman, V (2013)
With eyes that look like Puss-in-Boots and movement such as eating that is so incredibly like a furry human, their appeal to the animal seasoned crowds is easy to see. But that some people go from ‘aw that’s cute’ to ‘aw I want one’ and then enacting that desire out is an unintended impact of most people who forward the viral animal video.
Like most one stop shopping websites Facebook has a range of groups who engage in the sale and import of exotic animals,
“Many threatened species or their body parts are explicitly advertised for sale on websites, including charismatic Asian flagship species such as elephants, tigers, and marine turtles. Pet traders increasingly resort to the internet, e.g. in Thailand  and in China . Improved packaging and infrastructure allow ornamental fish and corals to be ordered on the internet and shipped to one’s door in a matter of days. Internet trade is also used to offer legally protected species for sale as pets , . For some species, like Iranian Kaiser’s spotted newt, rising demands in internet trade of live specimens has seen an increase in their harvesting from the wild, leading to near extinction of the species.”Nekaris, KAI, Campbell, Nicola, Coggins TG, Rhode, EJ & Nijman, V (2013) Other complications are the spread of disease and placing native animals in habitats outside their natural habitat.
Facebook commerce policy prohibits the sale of animals on it’s site. But, it has been hard to police what happens in closed groups.
Although loss of habitat is by far the greater threat to all the species of loris, across much of Asia, the pet trade, in particular to Japan is drawing heavily on the already threatened species.
The solution to stopping the trade of exotic animals may also in part lie on the internet. After the release of the “Tickling is Torture” video (shown above) by internationalanimalrescue.org sharing of Loris videos stopped and Facebook and YouTube users started exercising greater consciousness of the impact of sharing these type of videos.
The illegal animal trade has always been a thing, but with the internets ability to create higher visibility, with higher accessibility for potential clients, animals are being assaulted on yet another front. The internet as a tool of conservation education show potential for hampering the trade though. Government and corporate regulation are most definitely going to be the gatekeepers of the internet exotic animal trade, as well as the Facebook end-user, it can be as simple as not pressing share.
Nekaris, KAI, Campbell, Nicola, Coggins TG, Rhode, EJ & Nijman, V 2013, ‘Tickled to death: Analysing public perceptions of ‘cute’ videos of threatened species’, PLOS One, vol.8, no. 7, p.p. 931-935
Black, R 2007, ‘Too cute for comfort’, BBC News, June 8, view 31 March 2017, <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/6731631.stm>
Darnaud, G 2016, ‘When tickling is torture: illegal exotic animal trade’, Global Citizen, April 20, viewed 31 March 2017, <https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/slow-loris-torture-illegal-exotic-animal-trade/>
Cambridge University Press 2007, ‘Breifly’, Oryx, vol.41, no.4, pp.417-426