The universe seems to be conspiring against me this week, filling my feeds and IV lines of internet with images I utterly hate seeing. Images I have to pause, cancel, or report when I see them because, yes, I feel that strongly about them. Loris tickling, elephant rides, swimming with dolphins, posing with tigers, and that goddamn Android commercial – they all make me cranky.
Why are these images so bad? Well, they all depict wild animals with humans, either being abused, neglected, or poorly treated, or being treated as pets, which is only marginally better. In no universe do I support wild animals being kept as pets – I believe there is always a better solution, though, I will admit, not necessarily a quick better solution. And not only do I believe that wild animals are not pets, sharing and viewing these images contributes to the problem more than to the solution – regardless of how cute they are. So here they are, my many and strong opinions regarding the adorableness that is lion and chimpanzee, bear and tiger, and any parrot in a cage.
A brief explanation of why wild animals should never be pets
I worked with mostly orphaned chimpanzees when I lived in Africa, all victims of human actions – the vast majority of whom lived with people for at least a few years before they made it to a sanctuary. These chimps were, of course, duly thrown away once they became too large, unruly, willful, and generally chimpanzee-ish for their humans to appreciate or control any longer. So there’s your reason number one – wild animals are just that: wild. They don’t play by human rules, and their natural selves are not appropriate for any human setting both due to danger to the humans and to the animal in question.
Then, of course, there are the inferior nutritional, space, and cognitive needs of wild animals that almost all humans are in capable of providing – either due to a lack of appropriate education or the general lack of human structures to contain wild animals. These, obviously, contribute to the likelihood that someone – animal or human – will be hurt. And finally, and most importantly to me personally, no human can adequately provide for the social needs of a wild animal. It is pure arrogance to think you can. No animal is completely, utterly, entirely solitary – they all need to interact with others at least a little – and without other animals in their species, they are missing out on important social and cognitive stimulation that is horrifically detrimental in the long run.
Of course, many others have written about this, so there’s no need for me to continue to beat the dead horse.
Mmm not in my house, thanks.
But lots of the animals in those videos aren’t pets! They are just hanging out on a lawn with a puppy!
This is true. Much of the media showing wild animals in inappropriate settings doesn’t show them specifically as pets, but in settings where, at least to me, they are being housed extremely inappropriately.
The opposite of inappropriate housing: in a giant enclosure living with her new family.
So those adorable tigers at the sanctuary, they’re clearly not pets, right? Definitely not. They definitely wouldn’t have been separated from their mother at birth, replaced with piglets dressed in tiger skins so the mother doesn’t get mastitis. Those cubs definitely wouldn’t have been bottle raised by humans, and then sedated for tourists to take pictures of them. They definitely won’t be discarded when they are too big or rowdy for tourists to cuddle, or subjected to the same breeding schedule as their mother – who has, by the way, already had another litter that has been taken away from her. (She may also have eaten a pig or two.)
Of course, not all of this media is of animals living in baaaaaaaaasically the worst case scenario. Many of these animals live in facilities that provide at least a modicum of care, don’t breed them back to back, and yet somehow still fall short. Sure, a lion cub and a puppy playing together are adorable. But why is that lion cub playing with a puppy instead of other lions? It’s not like there are no other lions anywhere in the country or continent for a lion to be appropriately socialized with. Okay, so maybe other lions weren’t easy to get a hold of. Obviously a little socialization with a puppy is better than nothing? Sure it is, until that lion becomes too big and strong to play with said puppy, and then it’s into solitary or conspecific housing with him. And you know what skills a lion (insert any other wild animal here) isn’t going to develop growing up with a puppy? Social skills with his own species. I cannot tell you the sadness I have witnessed in the chimps that were raised with humans for years – decades sometimes – and then dumped into a social group when their owners were sick of them. It was emotionally devastating.
Poco — sweet, kind, and hated every minute of having to live with other chimps.
It’s a lot like an orphan colt that’s been raised in a house, watching TV with people, sitting on the couch, sleeping in the dog beds, and generally enjoying a lot of human company When he grows up to be big, mouthy, and hurt people – and he will – what happens to him? (I haven’t seen the documentary, but I’ve been told by many that Buck covers it.) I would posit that it’s more than mere negligence or a poor choice for a colt to be raised this way – it is cruelty.
Those animals are already in captivity, so why shouldn’t I watch a video of them?
You’re right, in many cases the animals in those videos were taken out of the wild or bred many years ago, and the videos of them are really just soooo cute. So why not watch the videos of them? It’s not like you’re watching a video of a baby chimp being brutally ripped off of his mother and handed to a human as a pet – how much harm can watching those adorable loris tickling videos really do?
Well, studies on how images influence public opinion have shown that every time someone sees a picture of a primate in a non-wild setting, they are more likely to think both that a) primates make good pets and b) the primate in question is not endangered and populations are doing excellently in the wild. Every book cover where some white lady is playing with a baby chimp, every video where a tourist bottle feeds a tiger, every selfie with a monkey, every elephant ride, every time someone sees one of these things, it tells their brain that doing those things with those animals is normal, acceptable, safe, and not harmful to the animals in question. But what do you think happens to the elephants that refuse to carry passengers anymore? To the macaques who steal too many cell phones, sunglasses, or the dignity of tourists? To those baby tigers when they grow up and aren’t cute or compliant enough for people to bottle-feed them and take pictures with them? I know, and I can tell you, it is nothing good.
Even images of animals with other animals can have a harmful effect on public opinion. Every time I see that Android commercial I cry a little inside – why is that lion cub hanging out with a bulldog instead of its mother and brothers? Why is that elephant hanging out with a black lab instead of her mother, sister, and daughters? Why is Roscoe the orangutan playing with a dog instead of with other orangutans his age? WHY ARE A BEAR AND A TIGER SO BONDED TO ONE ANOTHER?!
So there you have them – a few of my many and strong opinions. Now, this is not to say all captive institutions are bad, and I could talk your ear off about zoos, sanctuaries, accreditation, and the rest of it. I hope that this gives you a little insight to why I don’t watch those videos, and I hope you won’t watch them in the future either.
The studies mentioned above, regarding images and public perception of apes, can be read below. They are public-access and very well written!
Ross, Vreeman, Lonsdorf. 2011. “Specific Image Characteristics Influence Attitudes about Chimpanzee Conservation and Use as Pets”
Leighty et al. 2015. “Impact of Visual Context on Public Perceptions of Non-Human Primate Performers”