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Red flags: how to spot primate cruelty on social media

So you've learnt that primates are often exploited on social media, so how do you decide if the content you have found is good or bad for primates? Read on to find out how to identify cruel content and crucially, what to do when you come across it.

1. Captive primates

In their best interests, primates should not be kept captive in domestic environments, and should only ever be kept in captivity in the context of animal rescue, rehabilitation or sanctuary. Primates living inside human houses, wearing diapers or clothes, being handled, cuddled by humans, or kept in tiny cages are never rescued animals but pets. Some accounts may pretend having rescued and caring for an individual, but a rescued individual would be housed in an appropriate facility. 

2. Dressed in human clothing

Primates do not need clothing to be protected from external factors, and clothing may actually cause skin irritations and restrict movements. Additionally, content portraying primates in clothing on social media has devastating consequences on the general perception of the suitability of primates kept as pets. 

3. Restricted movement

Primates should never be tied up, kept in tiny cages or physically restrained in any other ways. Clothing restricts a primate’s movements and some clothes are purposely used for body restrictions, where arms are tucked in or where the clothing hides ropes and strings used to tie a monkey’s arms together. Chains, seclusion in tiny cages or spaces are also red flags to look for.  

4. Primates being teased or “pranked”

Content showing primates being teased or pranked can be extremely popular on social media due to its perceived entertainment value. People wearing masks or using props, such as real or fake animals (crabs, snakes, toys, etc) to scare their pet monkey and film their reactions is common practice. Imagine waking up to finding out a live python is wrapped around you, or having a strong crab pinching you. Even in the absence of direct physical abuse, the psychological distress caused to animals portrayed in such content is undisputable. Human beings are not the only animals who experience and are affected by a range of emotions, and the physiological effects of helplessness and prolonged stress in non-human animals are well documented.

5. Abnormal and unnatural behaviors

Pet primates may display a range of abnormal behaviors that they have developed to help them cope with stress, distress and fear. Abnormal behaviors can vary from individual to individual, but common signs include:

  • Self-biting

  • Hair-plucking

  • Pacing

  • Rocking 

  • Repetitive movements / locomotion 

  • Repetitive vocalizations

  • Thumb-sucking

  • Sexual behaviors

As such, if a monkey seems to repeatedly move from one side of a cage to another, the individual is showing clear and grave signs of distress. Similarly, if a monkey is biting their feet or legs, they are probably experiencing a great amount of distress and are trying to soothe themselves. Baby monkeys sucking their thumb is a clear sign of maternal deprivation.

6. Interacting with other animals

Some videos show primates interacting with other animals in some way, which is usually a completely unnatural interaction. For example, SMACC has located videos of primates who have clearly been trained to ride on the backs of other animals such as dogs or pigs. Sometimes, primates are exposed to or forced to interact with species they are fearful of, such as snakes or crocodiles. If a primate is seen in an environment that doesn’t seem to be their natural environment and interacting with animals of different species on video, the content is likely to be problematic. 

Similarly, fake outrage content featuring macaques is popular on social media and may portray macaques interacting with each other in negative ways, such as macaques being aggressive towards each other or rough handling infants. These videos are usually filmed in areas where urban populations of macaques are present, and where the content creators may have intervened before filming to aggravate, provoke or disrupt a group in order to film such content.

7. Fake rescue

Content showing animals being rescued from danger are also incredibly popular on social media. Everyone loves a happy ending for an animal in need! Unfortunately this interest is exploited by creators. You may come across a video showing a monkey being rescued from drowning, or from under a fallen tree or object.

Sadly, often these so-called “rescues” are actually fake, meaning the animals have been placed in these dangerous situations for the content creator to film themselves or others “helping” the animal.

Often accounts creating fake rescues will have many of these videos which appear to be filmed in the same place, sometimes with the same animals. You may also find that the “rescuer” is the same person every time. A key indicator of a fake rescue is when the content creator stands filming the animal in danger for a long time before any attempt at rescue. 

8. Asks for donations, promoting sales or “adoptions” of primates

Social media platforms should not be a space for wild animals to be sold or traded. Some accounts may be specifically created to promote the sale of primates, often disguised under the terms of “adoption”. Always be sure to check if the page is a legitimate rescue or sanctuary, by checking out their full website and looking for any formal charity registration.

9. "Smiling" primates

Primate pet owners and social media users often misinterpret primates’ basic communication signals. For example, a wide grin might be mistaken for an indication of pleasure or joy, when in fact, it is a sign of intense fear or deep submission in many primate species. Therefore, any content showing primates “smiling” is extremely problematic.

10. Obvious signs of distress

Many species of primates react to fear by cowering or trying to hide away. In some content, we see primates rolling themselves up into a ball, hiding their heads and tucking in their tails, presumably as they are unable to escape the distressing situation they are in. Such physical signs may be accompanied by vocalizations translating the animal’s distress: screams, cries or high-pitched screams usually indicate distress., However, vocalizations are not always automatic and a primate may indicate fear or distress through physical behaviors instead.

It is important to keep in mind that many species of animals, including non-human primates, tend to hide signs of distress, pain, suffering, as an adaptive strategy to living in social groups and survival mechanisms. A sick, injured, unwell individual may lose its rank in a hierarchical group, may be dismissed by the rest of the group, or even attacked. As such, animals tend to hide their negative states for as long as possible. This means that it may not always be possible to detect distress or poor welfare from physical indicators only or simply from viewing short videos on social media. Scientific knowledge of how captivity and pet keeping affects primates is always the most reliable source of information for understanding how primates may be experiencing captivity and related situations, especially as social media content can be so ambiguous. 

What you can do 

Primates are complex, incredible animals who need to live wild and free to truly thrive. Keeping them as pets is severely detrimental to their physical and psychological health. Pet primate content on social media sadly causes suffering and can even normalize such treatment of primates. Now that you have this knowledge, you can see beyond what is shown in the videos, and truly understand how pet primates suffer.

If you find such content, follow SMACC’s 5 Steps to End Online Animal Cruelty Content: 

  1. Be aware

  2. Do not watch

  3. Do not engage

  4. Do not share 

  5. Report it!

By taking these actions you can help create a positive future for primates. Thank you!

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