The ring-tailed lemur wants his back scratched. When the two small boys crouching near him stop, the habituated animal taps the spot, appearing to demand that the kids continue rubbing. This YouTube video, shot on the African island of Madagascar, went viral last week, making the rounds on Twitter, the TODAY Show, Mashable, and elsewhere.
It’s easy to understand the video’s popularity. With their plush fur and winsome eyes, the distant ape relatives are endearing creatures. And the video does seem funny at first glance—a bossy little animal demanding a back scratch isn’t something you see every day.
But to environmentalists, the video’s neither cute nor humorous. That’s because it’s missing crucial context showing the severe threats facing lemurs, says Kim Reuter, a conservation biologist in the Nairobi office of the nonprofit Conservation International. “All you see in the video is two adorable kids and an adorable lemur,” Reuter says, adding that viral videos stoke demand for these creatures from the wild.
Lemurs, found mainly on Madagascar, are disappearing in the dry forests they once populated. Ring-tailed lemurs and many of the other hundred-plus lemur species are endangered, mainly a result of habitat destruction but also the pet trade.
There have been roughly 28,000 lemurs kept as household pets in the past five years, according to research published last year. Some hotels in Madagascar even keep pet lemurs as a way to entice guests, as National Geographic reported earlier this year. Private owners favor ring-taileds in particular.
Not only does Malagasy law ban possession of lemurs without a permit—which few hotels have—but lemurs do poorly as pets. Many owners don’t know how to care for a lemur plucked from the wild, Reuter says. They’re often fed the wrong food and exposed to diseases they wouldn’t ordinarily contract. Because they can become aggressive as they age, owners sometimes end up killing them.
“When people see videos like this, it does a disservice to all the conservation initiatives that have been trying to get the message across that lemurs are wild animals and endangered,” Reuter says.
And it’s not only lemurs that get embroiled in a social media frenzy. Trending images give the false impression that all sorts of cute, threatened animals could make acceptable pets. Take, for example, the endangered pygmy marmoset, a small monkey that’s scooped up at Chinese pet shops only to likely die in captivity. Or raccoon dogs, animals that look like raccoons but are actually wild members of the canid family, like foxes and wolves, and can spread diseases and become too difficult to handle.
As for the lemur video, its impact on the pet trade is unknowable (though Reuter notes that her team has counted a slew of tweets from people interested in them as pets since the video was posted). But history shows that there’s good reason for the alarm.
One 2011 study showed that people were more likely to think chimpanzees would make great pets if they saw images of the primates standing next to a person. And in 2013, researchers found that about 10 percent of 12,000 comments on a 2009 viral video of a pygmy slow loris—a small, threatened Asian primate—mentioned that they wanted a slow loris pet.
“I’ve been studying slow lorises for a long time, and the video completely changed everything,” lead author Anna Nekaris, a primatologist at Oxford Brookes University in the U.K. told Live Science. “Nobody knew what a loris was before the YouTube video, but now everybody knows them.”
Editor’s Note: We decided to publish the viral video with this story because we want readers to understand what it shows, what it doesn’t show, and to be able to appreciate why extreme popularizing of animal activity of this kind is bad for wildlife.