Wild animals such as monkeys, tigers and lizards are being “psychologically and physically tortured” for likes and comments on social media. Animal protection experts, the Social Media Animal Cruelty Coalition (SMACC), have located evidence of content creators abusing wild animals kept as pets, many of them endangered species, for online popularity.
The Asia for Animals SMAC Coalition, made up of 15 animal protection organizations, conducted research into the online trend in wildlife as pets, which it says is being fueled by social media. Between September 2021 and October 2022, SMACC recorded 840 videos from Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter, depicting a wide range of wild animal species being kept as pets in people’s homes.
From spiders to monkeys, fishes to bears, SMACC identified at least 97 different species being kept as pets. SMACC confirmed that many of the animals depicted were endangered species such as long-tailed macaques and tigers, up to 65%, and some even critically endangered such as orangutans.
Such videos, which are very easy to find on social media platforms, show wild animals such as lion cubs wearing nappies, bushbabies dressed in baby clothes, monkeys fed bottles of milk, tigers being held on leads and other exotic animals being kept as pets. Users on these platforms often share this footage, commenting on how ‘cute’ the animals appear and enquiring on how to acquire one themselves.
Collectively, these 840 videos had been viewed 11,806,630,205 times.
In a new report “Wild animal "pets" on social media: a vicious cycle of suffering”, SMACC outlines how these videos normalize the keeping of wild species as pets, leading to an increase in their demand. This, in turn, has detrimental impacts on animal welfare and also fuels the trade in wild animals as pets, including endangered species. Social media has become a key driver in the trade in wild animals, with both legal and illegal trade taking place online and in communication apps such as WhatsApp. Research has shown how some species are seeing a decline in population numbers in the wild, in part due to the demand for the pet trade.
Viral trends, often exacerbated by celebrities or influencers, have led to widespread miseducation about the suitability of wild animals as pets. Viral videos showed slow lorises being tickled who raise their arms in response. Experts have pointed out that this may appear playful but is in fact a defensive behavior showing the animal is fearful. This content, mis-interpreted as harmless, also risks creating more demand for their capture and sale for the pet trade.
SMACC Lead Coordinator, Nicola O’Brien stated:
“Most people watching on social media do not see the vast amount of cruelty that has been perpetrated against animals for that 30 second video. What may look like a loving owner feeding their pet tiger with milk, what they are seeing is actually an endangered species who has and will suffer immensely. As well as the unsuitability of a human home for any wild animal causing physical and psychological damage, obtaining these animals supports a dangerous and often illegal worldwide trade, threatening animal welfare and endangered species protection. This is the vicious cycle of suffering behind these videos.”
The drive for likes and shares leads creators to stage situations with their animals, to produce new content. Many videos show wild animals being dressed in human clothes, made to perform ‘human’ type behaviors or brought into unsuitable settings. Some of the actions are potentially risky for the humans involved too. In one video, a woman takes a tiger cub into a fitness gym. Others show crocodiles living with children, and humans swimming with fully grown pet tigers.
Sadly, in many videos, physical animal abuse amounts to the extreme. Often, animals are hit and slapped by their owners to seemingly ‘discipline’ them. Disturbingly, creators put animals in dangerous situations to film their reactions, risking the animal drowning, suffocating or becoming injured. In a series of videos, baby monkeys are hung from logs in a fast-flowing river, in danger of slipping and drowning. Disturbingly, some animals are also shown being sexually abused by their owners.
All of these videos have been reported to the social media platforms, but the vast majority are still live for anyone to watch, as of reporting.
SMACC has reached out to a number of social media platforms, urging them to remove such content and offering to assist them in improving their policies. So far Meta and TikTok have been in discussion with SMACC but no other platforms have responded. SMACC reports progress is very slow, with social media platforms “avoiding their responsibilities”.
“Social media platforms are frankly just not doing enough to deal with the vast amounts of content that perpetuates animal cruelty on their platforms. They rely on the public to report offending content to them and yet still do not remove it. They do not do enough to automatically detect gross abuse content and uphold their own policies. What our report shows is that their inaction leads to a vicious cycle of suffering for wild animals kept as pets, and we are urging them to stop avoiding their responsibilities and take action.”