National Geographic News
Protesters hold up placards against Japan's annual Taiji Dolphin Slaughter outside the Japanese Embassy during a protest in central London on February 21, 2014.

People hold up signs asking Japan to end its annual Taiji dolphin hunt, at a protest last month outside the Japanese Embassy in London.


Virginia Morell

for National Geographic

Published March 14, 2014

Animal causes and social media seem to be made for each other.

That, at least, is the conclusion of two researchers from the animal advocacy group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). They recently presented a study at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science showing that Americans' moral support for using animals in medical testing has declined by 12 percent since 2001.

Most significant, they say, their study points to a huge drop in support for such testing among people ages 18 to 29. A whopping 54 percent of them told pollsters in 2013 that animal testing was morally wrong, versus only 31 percent in 2001.

"That's just an unprecedented increase," says Justin Goodman, a director at PETA and one of the researchers. "And we think it's linked to Internet use. It's the source for news and information, especially for young people."

Hal Herzog, an anthrozoologist at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina, is skeptical about PETA's claims that the Internet is fueling a change in attitudes toward medical testing with animals or that there's been a pronounced drop in young people's support for such testing.

"While there has been a general trend toward less support of animal has been slow and steady—not what would be predicted if anti-animal-research beliefs were 'going viral' among young people," Herzog says.

He suspects the data actually show that people in a particular age group are in general concerned about this issue but become less opposed as they age and have children (who may get ill and require medical treatments developed through animal research).

"The overall percentage of Americans opposed [to medical testing with animals] is 40 percent, the same as it was five or six years ago," he says.

Although Justin Goodman can't prove his hunch, he's not alone in noticing the public's love affair with animal advocacy organizations—and simply animals—on the Internet.

In 2011 a team from craigconnects, a kind of Internet-promo site started by Craig Newmark of, looked at which nonprofit groups used social media most effectively, in a study titled "Who Rules Social Media?"

Fishermen in wetsuits hunt dolphins at a cove in Taiji, western Japan, January 20, 2014.
Fishermen in boats and wetsuits round up dolphins for slaughter in Taiji Bay in January 2014.

Online Power

It was no contest: Animal-minded groups beat out every other nonprofit, including those focused on aid for children, disaster relief, and veterans' concerns. Animals trumped the others in every category the craigconnects team examined in their study, from "Look Who's Talking" to "But Who's Talking Back?" to "Whose Words Are Having the Most Impact?"

If that study doesn't convince you of the animal organizations' online power, take a look at the numbers: PETA has more than two million followers on Facebook and almost half a million on Twitter, while UNICEF USA, a leading children's advocacy nonprofit, has 422,000 and 163,000 respectively.

The contrast is even more striking when PETA squares off against an organization like the Foundation for Biomedical Research (FBR), which attempts to explain why medical testing on animals is sometimes necessary. It has but 130,000 Facebook pals, and 1,700 Twitter adherents.

And PETA is only one animal advocacy organization.

Animals: A Soaring Interest

Other animal welfare groups, including the Humane Society and the Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, also have chest-thumping numbers on both social sites. They are all also busy on Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, YouTube, and Google+.

So why do so many of us flock to the sites of the furred and feathered?

It's partly the times. In the past few years our interest in animals—who they are, how their minds work, what they feel—has soared.

"There's been a shift on animal issues," says Kerry Lauerman, the former editor of Salon and one of the co-founders of the all-animal-news website The Dodo, which was launched in mid-January and within weeks had more than a million subscribers.

"You can see it in things like the New York Times list of most emailed stories," Lauerman says. "These days animals are often the top story."

And these are not just cute critter tales, he notes. More often, they're about such things as scientists discovering, via brain scans, emotions in dogs that are similar to ours. Or researchers puzzling over empathetic behaviors in rats and elephants.

"These stories push different buttons in people," Lauerman says. "The discovery that animals are able to think in some way makes people deeply uncomfortable. At the same time, they really want to understand them, to know them."

And scientists working in animal cognition are delivering: Hardly a week goes by without a new discovery or insight into the inner workings of some creature's mind.

The Happy-Sad Equation

Intellectual curiosity may be driving people to the animal sites. But the content must keep them there—and keep them coming back.

Theoretically this requires following a fairly simple equation, says James Jasper, a scholar of social movements at CUNY Graduate Center in New York. "You juxtapose two emotional batteries: one negative, one positive," he says. "So you show a photo of a happy animal, like a playful puppy, and close to it, you show one of an unhappy, tortured animal."

People generally respond with outrage to the second image. Together, the two images spark hope for change. "It works: The two together really motivate people," Jasper says.

PETA's Goodman agrees, noting that the group's website currently shows a happy dog next to a banner, "Spay-a-Thon a Huge Success," followed by an image of a tiger cub biting the bars of its cage headlined, "10 Reasons Not to Attend the Circus."

Double Trouble's Sad Tale

PETA employed this technique when it introduced its followers to a cat named Double Trouble in 2012. She was being used in sound experiments at the University of Wisconsin and had been intentionally deafened and outfitted with a thick metal bar to hold her head still during tests.

"Yes, the photos are graphic, but they're also incredibly sad," Goodman says. "And people feel that. It makes them want to do something, to channel that emotion into doing something positive."

PETA provides the means: a button to click or a petition to sign. "That's all it takes, and you can help that animal. Your click, your signature matters."

More than 200,000 people signed a petition urging the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the University of Wisconsin to end the research, and Double Trouble's misery. Her image and story were seen and shared millions of times via social media, Goodman says.

In the end, the NIH requested that the invasive aspects of the project be stopped until they would be investigated. Following the investigation, the study was allowed to resume. In the meantime, Double Trouble had been euthanized after suffering from an infection. Other cats are now being used for similar tests, and PETA continues its campaign against them.

Double Trouble's story illustrates another point: Particularly affecting tales can easily and quickly go viral.

"Emotional stories about the way we treat animals—such as the dolphin slaughter at Taiji or the death of Marius the giraffe—just explode on the Internet, in a way that other stories don't," Lauerman says.

That's partly because of the passions they arouse and because social media makes it easy to exchange opinions.

A photo of a perfectly healthy young giraffe named Marius who was shot dead and autopsied in the presence of visitors.
This healthy giraffe named Marius was killed at Copenhagen Zoo in February 2014 because he was not useful for the zoo's breeding program.

You Are There!

Viewers may also have the sensation that the event is happening in real time, Lauerman says. "It was especially true with the dolphin hunt at Taiji, which was actually happening every day. If you were watching and sending tweets or passing on messages, it was as if you were participating, even if you weren't there. In that kind of situation, you get the feeling that your reaction, your opinion may count."

Just by sitting at their keyboards clicking buttons, e-signing petitions, and passing on messages, people have discovered that they can help animals. Every animal advocacy group I spoke to remarked on how its organization has grown or changed because of the rise of social media.

"It's made advocacy as simple as a clicked button," says Bruce Friedrich of Farm Sanctuary, which works on behalf of farm animals. Through social media, he adds, the organization is able to "reach into communities that would otherwise have been closed to us." Members tell friends, and friends tell family, and soon people across the country are sharing stories about pigs that play like dogs, or chickens with the curiosity of cats.

Big Reach

Social media's long arm also gives animal rights groups far more clout than they had in the past.

Maris Sidenstecker, the co-founder of Save the Whales, which works to free cetaceans in captivity, knew exactly what to do when a Facebook follower sent news about a baby pilot whale that was tied by its tail to a dock at a Jamaican resort.

From the organization's headquarters in California, she threatened the owner: "If you don't let it go, I'm posting this on Facebook right now." He agreed, and she contacted Jamaican wildlife officials to make sure the owner carried out his promise.

"The Internet gives you leverage, something we never really had before," she says.

Via social media, public shaming awaits those who tie up helpless baby whales, or win the chance to kill a hapless rhinoceros, or take part in coyote-killing contests.

Will the proliferation of cameras, e-petitions, and Facebook posts finally force us to treat animals better? Will animals gain more rights? Will we all become vegetarians and insist that no animal—even a rat—be used in medical testing?

Friending Animals: Today's Kids

Justin Goodman of PETA is decidedly optimistic.. He thinks the data reflect a real societal change, and the high percentage of young people opposed to animals being used in biomedical research gives him hope that a "cultural shift" is under way.

"As younger people move into positions where they're making policy," Goodman says, "they'll bring their attitudes with them. We see this change coming; it is closer than ever."

C. Dufour
C. Dufour

I like the article Nat geo but I wouldnt give PETA any publicity, they are a dangerous organisation. animal welfare is one thing but animal rights is too extreme

Mary Gallagher
Mary Gallagher

I agree that all animals are on this earth for a reason and, like a lot of things, we cannot intercede!  Like honey bees and dolphins and whales and cows, etc - the list goes on!!!

Howard Houston
Howard Houston

Due to the animal rights cults practice of lying about their intentions the average layperson thinks animal rights and animal welfare are the same thing.  They are not animal rights which PeTA, HSUS and the ASPCA push in this country and around the world are for the elimination of all domestic animals. Animal rights means no use of animals and these cults mean that any animal is better off dead than used as a pet or cared for and used in any manner.

The principle behind supporting Animal Welfare is that an animal must be cared for adequately. It mandates legal prosecution and punishment if convicted of animal abuse or neglect. The defining principle of Animal Welfare is that we, as human beings capable of higher thinking and reason, MUST care for, protect, and preserve the animals around us in a way that is humane, compassionate, and within the confines of the law.

This means, that we have a responsibility to provide them the nutrition, care, and support they need to function in their respective roles without pain or misery. For pets, it means providing them with the necessities of life and veterinary care if necessary. For animals meant for meat consumption or animals that provide products it means raising them humanely and ensuring their dispatch is as painless and stress-free as possible. For animals that are hunted and legally harvested, it means trying our best to kill as quickly as possible, to ensure the animal doesn’t suffer.

Animal Welfare is being compassionate in all things. Everyone agrees we need animal welfare and in most states we already have laws on the books that promote animal welfare. The laws being pushed now are not about animal welfare they are about making owning an animal or using an animal for food or medical research that benefits both humans and animals  so difficult and expensive that only the rich will be able to have a pet or eat meat.  WE NEED ANIMAL WELFARE NOT ANIMAL RIGHTS. ANIMAL RIGHTS MEANS THE END OF ALL DOMESTIC ANIMALS AND OUR COLLABORATIVE RELATIONSHIP WITH THEM.

ANIMAL RIGHTS ARE NOT WELFARE-ORIENTED. Animal RIGHTS means, in it’s entirety, NO ANIMALS in the care of humans. It means an END to the use of working animals. An END to animals for meat or eggs or dairy or any of the other animal-oriented products out there. It means an END TO ALL PET OWNERSHIP.

Goal 10 of the Animal Rights mission statement is that there will be no more breeding or keeping of a Pet. They  list KEEPING A PET as oppression.

So. If these animal rights groups have their way, what will happen to all the animals we suddenly won’t be allowed to own or care for?  They will die as they have been shown to do so in the past.  The wild horses over grazed and started starving.  Chickens raised in the open die from disease and predators. THEY will all DIE. This is the philosophy behind the animal rights movement: it is better to be DEAD than to be someone’s pet, or raised for meat, or kept for any reason. To save them, you must KILL THEM. Thanks to this better-off-dead zealotry, organizations like PeTA and HSUS facilitate the deaths of or outright KILL thousands (or more) of our animal companions EVERY YEAR. 

What’s more scary is that many Animal Rights organizations encourage violence.  Arson is one of their favorite pass times. The FBI considers most major Animal Rights organizations as domestic TERRORIST groups.  Animal Rights terrorism is on the rise! and they’ve committed many crimes and acts of terrorism, accounting for over a hundred million dollars in damages. They have killed in the name of animal rights.

The average layperson, thinks animal rights is the same as animal welfare, but it isn't its a deaths sentence for all domestic animals who rely upon human beings for their existence. 

These cults  run smear campaigns, make up false statistics, and file false charges ruining people's lives.  This is happening now in New York, where corrupt people take money given out by the Animal Rights people who are trying to ban the horse-drawn carriages. Developers hungry for the land in the middle of New York occupied by the carriage trade push the mayor to support these radicals. They’ve built an entire campaign on lies and misinformation in order to give the NYC Mayor de Blasio reasons to ban the carriages and the horses from the city, but his real reason is money and land.

All across this country several industries are facing destruction based upon lies about what they do. Even when the product actually saves lives they have taken it down with lies. Think about the slander against processed baby food that these cults renamed pink slime. This was a process that extracted all protein from the body of the cow. No more waste and more people could be fed. But they destroyed it by renaming this perfectly good meat as pink slime. Now they are trying to end pet shops all across this country by lying about the puppies they sell. Farms and ranching are in their crosshairs with every piece of legislation they want passed. It is very clear they are not about animal welfare but about ending all use of animals and creating a vegan world. 

They know that the human brain requires ACTIVE VB12 to function normally and without it the human brain cannot think rationally. They depend upon controlling your diet like all cults and therefore they push the Inactive VB12 that only comes from plants and which in fact prevents the human brain from using nutrients properly. It is called Inactive because it blocks the take up actions of the ACTIVE VB12. This means these animal rights people are dangerous to the human race. Even when their own children are at risk of dying they refuse to feed them properly and have caused the deaths of over 30 infants in the past five years. Because their brains no longer function rationally they only think overly emotionally and even when their own children are at risk they choose to follow the vegan diet leading to death. Fortunately these people are now in jail.

Remember when you support these organizations you are supporting the death of all domestic animals and the human race. Don't believe me? Well read the head man of the animal rights movement Peter Singer's article in the New York Times, "Should this be the last Generation (of human beings)?" 

Every time someone says “I support Animal Rights” when they really support Animal WELFARE, they endanger the human race and the animals we love. They can claim that the majority of people agree with them, even if the majority of their supporters are really for animal welfare every time you say I support animal rights.  Your unwitting support of these cult groups have given them to much false support and power. This has got to stop. Remember "Animal rights" was invented by Adolf HItler to pit people against each other. If he could put certain groups of people below animals then he could control who lives and who dies. These new groups who follow his rules and guidelines are also seeking power over the lives of everyone in this country. You are giving them the money to kill all domestic animals as they have already shown they are doing and will continue to do so on a greater scale.

Your  unwitting support has given them all kinds of power already. This has GOT to stop. 

Jan Dykema
Jan Dykema

social media has made everyone an "instant expert" by looking at photos and videos ( many doctored and edited)/ PETA's ultimate goal is the elimination of the human animal bond. That point is never mentioned here although PETA says it often buried and couched in nuance and hyperbole. PETA members are more than happy to use medicines and undergo operations .. all tested on animals..rather than see themselves die or their loved ones ( if they have any human loved ones) die..  this is hypocrisy at its finest. Your article is biased when you use the words animal "advocacy"  PETA is an animal RIGHTS group plain and simple..  oh but before all comes the almighty dollar.. as every piece of literature andr 'social media" calls for donations donations donations.. so that PETA can kill over 97% of the animals it "takes in" each year..where is that part of your article? Not worthy of National Geographic, this is biased and one sided. Bleh to National Geographic.. going downhill faster than the NYT

c.j. m.
c.j. m.

 I am not sure it is a generational issue. Many of the animal rights advocates that I know are over the age of 40. If you look at your lead photo the people in the foreground protesting the Taiji slaughter are not the "younger generation". In fact, I have found that people become more empathetic as they approach their own demise. Much like the replicants in Blade Runner  "In the end, my life…any life was precious…" It would be nice if this empathy could be translated to more young people so they might take up the cause to make the changes needed.  At the moment I am disillusioned by the number of young people wearing Canada Goose jackets, Ugg boots, and saying how" bacon makes everything better".

Social media is definitely helping. Just as seeing the war in your living room in the '60's brought about the end to foreign  involvement in Viet Nam, perhaps seeing the way animals are mistreated will bring about the end to "The Ghosts In Our Machine". (Now there are two of a younger generation that are in the lead: Liz Marshall and Jo-Anne McArthur. Thoughtful and admirable.)

Peter Spendelow
Peter Spendelow

@Jan Dykema "ultimate goal is to eliminate the human animal bond"?  Quite the opposite - the message I'm getting from these groups is the celebration of our bonds to other animals.  "The Bond" is even the title of Wayne Pacelle's book (President of Humane Society of the United States).  Science is showing us so many similarities in how humans and other animals think and feel.  Even animals with tiny brains, such as jays and crows, are able to perform mental feats such as amazing memory skills that put us to shame (Clark's nutcrackers able to remember their hiding spots for 30,000 pine nuts).  It is exploitation that these groups are opposing - exploitation of sentient animals that do not have a voice to speak in their own defense.

Howard Houston
Howard Houston

@Peter Spendelow @Jan Dykema  Really, the why do they say things like this:

“We don’t want any of these animals to be raised and killed…unfortunately we don’t have the luxury of waiting until we have the opportunity to get rid of the entire [animal agriculture] industry.” – Vice President for farm animal issues Miyun Park, in a 2006 speech

“We have no ethical obligation to preserve the different breeds of livestock produced through selective breeding …One generation and out. We have no problems with the extinction of domestic animals. They are creations of human selective breeding.” – CEO Wayne Pacelle, as reported in Animal People News, May1993

“I don’t want to see another cat or dog born.” – CEO Wayne Pacelle in Bloodties, 1994

“I don’t have a hands-on fondness for animals. I did not grow up bonded to any particular nonhuman animal. I like them and I pet them and I’m kind to them, but there’s no special bond between me and other animals…” – CEO Wayne Pacelle in Bloodties, 1994

“My goal is the abolition of all animal agriculture.” –HSUS Director of Animal Cruelty PolicyJohn “J.P.” Goodwin

Goals of the animal rights movement:

1. Abolish by law all medical research using any sentient being.

2. Outlaw the use of animals for cosmetic and product testing, classroom demonstration and in weapons development.

3. Vegan meals should be made available at all public institutions, including schools.

4. Eliminate all animal agriculture.

5. No herbicides, pesticides or other agricultural chemicals. Outlaw predator control.

6. Transfer enforcement of animal welfare legislation away from the Department of Agriculture.

7. Eliminate fur ranching and the use of furs.

8. Prohibit hunting, trapping and fishing for food.

9. Prohibit the sale of any animal or animals even if the money is used to protect the species from extinction.

10. Stop any further breeding of companion animals, including purebred dogs and cats. Spaying and neutering should be subsidized by state and municipal governments. Abolish commerce in animals for the pet trade.

11. End the use of animals in entertainment and sports no matter what the animal was bred to do.

Angie Bahris
Angie Bahris

@Howard HoustonYou're a lunatic. And quite ignorant at that. Get over yourself. Oh, and the most of the things should you mentioned SHOULD be eliminated, you arrogant fool. 

Angie Bahris
Angie Bahris

@Howard Houston You're a lunatic. And quite ignorant at that. Get over yourself. Oh, and the most of the things should you mentioned SHOULD be eliminated, you arrogant fool. 


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