Selfies, GIFs, and viral videos can be deadly for wildlife. Just last week, an endangered baby dolphin died after beachgoers in Argentina hauled it out of the water to pose with it for photos. Also this month two peacocks in a Chinese zoo died after being mishandled by visitors taking selfies.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature, which sets species’ conservation status, lists the La Plata dolphin as vulnerable to extinction, protecting it from hunting and capture in Argentina—but not from people passing one of them around until it died from dehydration.
“I don’t think anyone intended to harm the animal, but the excitement and thrill drew people in,” says Neil D’Cruze, head of Wildlife Policy and Research at World Animal Protection, UK. “It shows that interaction with a wild animal in its habitat can be just as terrible and deadly as having these animals in captivity.”
Thousands of species of wild animals suffer in the exotic pet trade. The exact scale of the problem isn’t known, but it’s huge, with many animals traded illegally.
Social media has changed the landscape, making exotic animals seem adorable and acceptable, but what you don’t see is the suffering that lies behind the images. These three animals are trending on the Internet, but they belong in the wild.
Slow lorises are beguiling but venomous primates made famous by Internet videos showing them being tickled or fed rice balls. All nine species of slow lorises are threatened with extinction, largely because of the illegal pet trade.
Two recent studies documenting the extent of the illegal trade in slow lorises show how the typical way they’re kept constitutes animal cruelty. When the researchers examined 100 online videos of pet lorises, they found that all of them depicted unhealthy and abused animals that were malnourished, obese, sick, afraid, and distressed.
Louisa Musing, of Oxford Brookes University, one of the study’s authors, says these videos expose slow lorises to audiences around the world, fueling their demand as pets and distorting people’s understanding of where they belong and what represents a healthy environment for them.
“Any unknowing individual who watches these ‘cute’ videos will be under the impression that they’re suitable as pets, which is far from the truth for these wild, complex animals,” Musing says.
Musing’s coauthor, Anna Nekaris, of the Little Fireface Project and Oxford Brookes University, says that what appears cute is actually horrific. “Slow lorises move slowly and freeze when stressed and grab onto anything they can, as in the wild they would never let go of branches,” she says. “So a loris holding a fork or raising his arms in the air are both signs of stress.”
“Slow lorises should never be pets,” Musing says emphatically. “Their complex needs just cannot be met in a private household. They’re wild animals that need to stay in the wild.”
A raccoon dog, or tanuki, named Tanu burst to fame on the Internet after his owner tweeted photos of his pet. They showed Tanu going on leashed walks, leaning in close to a heater during a snowstorm, and begging for food.
Raccoon dogs look like raccoons but are actually wild members of the canid family, like foxes and wolves. They’re native to East Asia. But 80 years ago biologists released 9,000 of them in the western Soviet Union to be hunted for their fur. Those original raccoon dogs reproduced and spread west into central and western Europe.
In addition, people may be freeing pet raccoon dogs when the animals become too difficult to handle. Recently two raccoon dogs were found in the countryside in Wales, likely abandoned pets.
“Invasive species compete with indigenous wildlife and can spread disease and introduce pathogens, decimating native animals,” says Clifford Warwick, a consulting biologist and medical scientist who has studied the exotic pet trade for decades.
Raccoon dogs pose a big threat to local amphibians and ground-nesting birds. Some countries, like Sweden, encourage their citizens to hunt and kill invasive raccoon dogs.
Raccoon dogs also harbor high levels of parasites that can infect people. Dozens of such zoonoses—diseases that can jump from animals to humans—are carried by exotic pets.
D’Cruze says pet reptiles can carry salmonella and are responsible for tens of thousands of cases of human illness in the U.S. each year. And local wildlife is also at risk. “The chytrid fungus that’s wiping out amphibian populations worldwide was actually transmitted by the exotic pet trade,” he says.
2016, the “year of the monkey” for Chinese, has brought a craze for pet monkeys among the newly rich.
Pygmy marmosets are the world’s smallest monkeys, weighing less than 5 ounces. In their natural habitat in the Amazon rain forest, where they’re endangered, they live in stable family groups with complex social relationships. They’re highly intelligent and inquisitive.
They do poorly as pets: It’s impossible for owners to provide them with an environment as complex and stimulating as in the wild, so they die easily in captivity.
Even though the sale of pygmy marmosets is illegal, these so-called “thumb monkeys” are being scooped up for sale in Chinese pet shops at the hefty price tag of up to $4,500. Photos of them have been appearing on the social media site Sina Weibo.
A recent study by Warwick and his colleagues found that more than 70 percent of exotic pets die within six weeks at wholesalers. Many animals die during capture from the wild, and problems continue when these animals reach private homes. “Sickness, injury, and psychological stress persist from start to finish in the wildlife pet trade,” Warwick says.
The next time you see a video or photo of an exotic animal being kept as a pet, try to remember what goes on behind the scenes. Speak out about the exotic animal trade and share only images of animals living full, healthy lives in the wild.
Mary Bates is a freelance science writer based in Boston. She has contributed to such online and print publications as New Scientist, IEEE Pulse magazine, and BrainFacts.org. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.