Animal videos and photos are some of the most shared things on the internet, and the explosion of social media has played a big part in their popularity (hello, cat videos!).
As well as the fun and harmless side of this, some worrying research suggests social media users are increasingly putting animals into situations that harm their welfare to make videos. And that sharing this content normalises the poor treatment of animals.
Do animal videos normalise cruelty?
Even well-meaning animal carers can fall into this trap. I recently came across the YouTube channel of a rescue-centre owner who shares a lot of animal videos. While most of his videos are wholesome and clearly he cares for them, it’s not all positive. Let’s have a look.
Animals are not humans
Firstly, he tends to talk about animals as if they are human beings (or “anthropomorphises” them). While this in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it can help us build empathy with animals, it can also lead to people putting them into situations they think they’d enjoy when really they don’t. They are not humans at the end of the day, so their wants and needs are different and we need to respect that.
Does a tortoise need a day trip?
In one video, he took his baby tortoises to a restaurant in a see-through backpack. This may initially seem unproblematic, and comments from restaurant staff and video viewers suggest that people generally found it cute and wholesome. To him, he was taking the tortoises for a “fun trip out” and it is easy to imagine they may enjoy the experience of being somewhere new, like we do, but how do we know? How can we work out how they may actually feel?
Let’s look at the evidence
There are far worse examples of using animals under our care for clicks, but let’s use this case to examine how we can decide whether a day trip in a backpack is something a tortoise may want to do or not.
A few things might be helpful here:
- Some knowledge of the species, such as physiology, natural habitat and behaviours to help us understand how an animal might experience the world.
- An individual’s history so that we know what an animal is used to.
- An understanding of our own nature to anthropomorphise animals in our care.
Thinking about tortoise physiology, there is a misconception that they are deaf as they don’t have an ear opening, but they do have auditory organs which are actually very sensitive to lower frequencies, some of which humans cannot even detect. These deeper sounds may be stressful as they may think a predator is approaching. Ambient noise in a restaurant could therefore contain potentially stressful sounds for a tortoise.
It’s also worth considering whether the tortoises have been exposed to so many people before, whether the light conditions are what they are used to, and so on. Animals are sensitive to their environment and any changes to the norm may be stressful.
Also, in their natural habitat there would be plenty of open space with some darker hiding spaces. This is not the case in a cramped see-through backpack, so they cannot undergo normal behaviours or hide from things that scare them. Therefore, the trip may cause stress and perhaps aggression between the tortoises who have very little space to avoid each other.
What to think about before making animal videos
We can see that a little research and thought can lead us to different conclusions than where our nature to think about animals as if they were human might lead us.
It can be especially difficult to determine stress levels in certain animals like tortoises, so we need to take extra care to do the best we can for them. Often it’s better to give the benefit of the doubt in these situations: do your research, and if you think your animal will have a hard time, avoid the situation.
Sources: The Social Media Animal Cruelty Coalition (SMACC) carries out reports on social media and animal welfare.
Blog by Darren Talbot, MSc Animal Behaviour and Welfare, Volunteer Blog Writer at OneKindPlanet