How Social Media Often Supports Animal Cruelty and the Illegal Pet Trade
By Ashley Edes
Whether you find it fascinating or disquieting, people recognize the inherent similarities between us and our closest primate relatives, especially the great apes. As a primatologist I regularly field questions ranging from how strong gorillas and chimpanzees are (very) to whether monkeys throw poop (not yet observed in the wild) to how smart they are (let's just say I can't compete with their puzzle-solving abilities).
Interspersed with the fun and interesting facts I share about primates, I also try to help people become more discerning consumers of animal photos, videos and other content, especially on social media. A little bit of context can help people avoid unintentionally supporting wildlife trafficking or other harmful practices through a like or a share.
We've all seen images and videos of primates that go viral — a chimpanzee bottle-feeding a baby tiger, a monkey having makeup applied, slow lorises eating rice balls and holding tiny umbrellas. Most recently, widely circulated videos have shown juvenile chimpanzees dressed in clothes and hugging former caretakers or scrolling through Instagram on a smartphone. Whether due to their similarities to us or to the fact that most of our animal experience is with domesticated species, many viewers erroneously believe these pictures and videos are not only cute and innocuous but that they depict animals in positive, healthy situations.
Unfortunately, this is often not the case.
One of the best ways to gauge animal welfare in zoos and sanctuaries (and more broadly on social media) is to use the Five Freedoms, which were first presented in 1979 by the UK Farm Animal Welfare Council. Essentially, positive welfare means animals experience:
- Freedom from hunger or thirst — access to water and species-appropriate food;
- Freedom from discomfort — appropriate environments with shelter and resting areas;
- Freedom from pain, injury or disease — diagnosis, treatment and prevention when possible;
- Freedom to express normal behaviors — enough space and appropriate social housing to facilitate these behaviors (within reason, as not every natural behavior can be accommodated);
- Freedom from fear and distress — avoid mental suffering.
With these Five Freedoms in mind, you can pick out some of the welfare concerns that wildlife experts see in these viral images and videos. Wearing clothing is not a normal behavior and is an immediate red flag. Primates that are strongly bonded to humans often are not in appropriate environments, meaning those locations and situations aren't designed to help them express normal behaviors with members of their own species. (Occasionally humans in zoos and sanctuaries must care for neglected or orphaned infants, but these animals are socialized and housed with members of their own species as soon as possible.)
Other issues may be harder to recognize, which is why the expertise of those with specialist knowledge is so valuable. For example, videos of slow lorises frequently violate the Five Freedoms — rice balls are not appropriate food sources for this species and those shown reaching for tiny umbrellas are exhibiting a fear display, information about their biology and behavior the public would not typically have.
While these problems are not unique to primatology, our abundant similarities lead people to believe they can accurately judge how their evolutionary cousins are feeling. But those big open mouth "smiles" aren't expressions of happiness, they're "fear grimaces" (formally termed 'silent bared teeth displays'), which primates display to signal subordination to a larger, stronger individual, usually in contexts where aggression has occurred or is likely. These expressions are especially prevalent in the entertainment and greeting card industries; I encourage you to think about the treatment received behind-the-scenes to get displays of submission and fear in front of a camera.
The rhesus monkeys in these photos are not smiling; they're displaying "fear grimaces" (formally termed 'silent bared teeth displays'), which are expressions of subordination typically shown in situations where an individual is threatened or has received aggression. The first photo shows a fear grimace up close, while the second shows a whole family displaying fear grimaces toward the approaching alpha male.
Photo: Amanda Dettmer, used with permission
Many believe that engaging with social media posts such as these through liking, sharing or even commenting has no impact on animal conservation. But these videos and images actually do threaten species, many of which are already in peril. Likes and shares are noted by those in the exotic pet trade, and comments like "I want one" encourage viewing wildlife as suitable pets and fuels the continued removal of endangered species from their homes.
Research by primate conservationists has documented the devastating effects social media can have on primate populations (you can read some of the scientific papers for free here, here, here and here). For example a 2015 study by Katherine Leighty and colleagues demonstrated that viewing pictures of primates in a stereotypical office setting both increased people's desire to have these animals as pets and decreased their likelihood of believing the animals to be endangered. By comparison, primates depicted in forests or away from humans were perceived as happier. This and studies like it demonstrate that the pictures and videos we see on social media do affect public perception.
It's important to understand just how drastically the pet trade can threaten the survival of vulnerable and endangered species. For example, infant chimpanzees are targeted for the pet trade because adults are dangerously strong and can be very aggressive. Because adults will fight to protect them, whole troops are regularly killed to capture one or two infant chimpanzees. These infants rarely survive long enough to be sold, either due to the traumatic experience, the poor conditions following capture, or a combination of both.
There are many other awful realities of the primate pet trade, such as slow lorises, which are the only venomous primates, having their teeth cut out with nail clippers so they cannot bite (check out more on the plight of slow lorises at the Little Fireface Project).
You don't have to be an animal welfare expert to fight back against the pet trade. Below are simple, easy steps individuals or organizations can take to support the conservation of endangered species.
- Don't like, share or comment positively on questionable media. Look for those red flags indicating the Five Freedoms of animal welfare are being violated. If you aren't sure, you can consult this guide or reach out to a primatologist or wildlife biologist — there's a whole big community of us on social media and we're happy to help (you can find me on Twitter at @ashley_edes).
- If you are following accounts that regularly share questionable media, unfollow them.
- Challenge others who share questionable media. You can share this essay or some of the many other excellent ones that have been written on this topic (see pieces by the Jane Goodall Institute, DiscoverWildlife and Mongabay).
- Do not purchase greeting cards or items depicting animals in poor welfare situations (e.g., wearing clothes, smoking, riding bicycles) and educate others if you receive such items.
- Avoid tourist activities allowing close interaction with wild animals. While there are exceptions, in many of these situations the animals are drugged or cruelly trained to be docile and pose for pictures with tourists (see this piece from National Geographic and recent research on pet lemurs and wildlife tourism for more).
- Follow reputable zoos and sanctuaries for wildlife content. Zoos and sanctuaries share amazing pictures and videos on social media every day. Engaging with these posts spreads media that have a positive impact on captive animal welfare and the conservation of their wild counterparts. One of the easiest ways to identify reputable organizations is to look for accreditation from AZA, ZAA, BIAZA, EAZA, WAZA, GFAS and/or NAPSA. These organizations donate millions to conservation efforts every year, and institutions accredited by them have higher standards of animal care.
When we truly care about wildlife, we want them to thrive. As difficult as it may be, we need to make sure our desire to be near to and connect with wildlife doesn't jeopardize their ability to live and thrive in the wild. Rethinking and changing our engagement with wildlife content on social media — not just as individuals but as a culture — can have real, positive impacts on the animals we are trying to save.
The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Revelator, the Center for Biological Diversity or their employees.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.
Environmental officials and members of the U.S. Coast Guard are racing to clean up a mysterious oil spill that has spread to 11 miles of Delaware coastline.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Dr. Kate Raynes-Goldie
Of all the plastic we've ever produced, only 9% has been recycled. So what happened to all that plastic you've put in the recycling bin over the years?
Triangle of Mistruths<p>The myth created around plastic recycling has been one of simplicity. We look for the familiar triangle arrows, then pop the waste in the recycling bin so it can be reused.</p><p>But the true purpose of those triangles has been misunderstood by the general public ever since their invention in the 1980s.</p><p>These triangles were actually created by the plastics industry and, according to a report provided to them in July 1993, <a href="https://www.npr.org/transcripts/912150085" target="_blank">were creating "unrealistic expectations"</a> about what could be recycled. But they decided to keep using the codes.</p><p>Which is why many people still believe that these triangular symbols (also known as a <a href="https://sustainablepackaging.org/101-resin-identification-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">resin identifier code</a> or RIC) means something is recyclable.</p><p>But according to the American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM) – which controls the RIC system – the numbered triangles "<a href="https://www.astm.org/Standards/D7611.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are not recycle codes</a>." In fact, they weren't created for the general public at all. They were made for the post-consumer plastic industry.</p><p>In other words, the symbols make it easier to sort the different types of plastics, some of which cannot be recycled – <a href="https://www.ecobin.com.au/understand-recycling-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">depending on the recycling facility</a>.</p><p>"Unfortunately, just placing your plastic into the recycling bin doesn't mean it will get recycled," says Lara Camilla Pinho. She is an architect and lecturer at the UWA School of Design who is researching novel uses of plastic waste.</p><p>"The recycling system is complicated and often dictated by market demand. Not all plastic is recyclable. We cannot recycle plastic bags or straws for example."</p>
Behind the Scenes<p>So, what makes recycling plastics so difficult?</p><p>"Essentially, there are two types of plastics – thermoplastics and thermosets. While thermoplastics can be re-melted and re-molded, thermosets contain cross-linked polymers that cannot be separated meaning they cannot be recycled," says Lara.</p><p>"Even thermoplastics have a limit to the amount of times we can recycle them, as each time they are recycled they downgrade in quality."</p><p>Even when plastics are recyclable, it is <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/13/war-on-plastic-waste-faces-setback-as-cost-of-recycled-material-soars" target="_blank">often more costly</a> than simply making new plastics.</p>
Sugar, Seaweed and Mushrooms<p>If the conventional recycling system isn't working, what else can we do with all the plastic we've created?</p><p>Lara is looking for ways to add value to recycled plastics such as using it in the design and development of architectural products. She hopes to use these architectural products to help underserved communities that are disproportionately affected by plastic waste.</p><p>In addition to recycling, we also need to find ways to reduce our use of virgin petroleum-based plastics.</p><p>Bioplastic is one such product that has been getting a lot of hype over the last few years. And although they're better than petroleum-based plastics, bioplastics also come with their own <a href="https://phys.org/news/2017-12-truth-bioplastics.html" target="_blank">set of challenges</a>.</p><p>"There are already a lot of bio-based alternatives to plastic, such as bagasse – a byproduct of sugar cane processing," says Lara.</p><p><a href="https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-mycelium-revolution-is-upon-us/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mycelium</a>, a type of fungi we most often associate with mushrooms, are also providing an interesting plastic alternative.</p><p>"In the field of architecture, mycelium is starting to be used as an alternative to plastic insulation, but also as compostable packaging and bricks," says Lara.</p><p>"The bricks take around five days to make and are strong, durable, water resistant and compostable at the end of their use."</p><p><a href="https://www.arup.com/news-and-events/hyfi-reinvents-the-brick" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hy-Fi Tower</a>, created by <a href="http://www.thelivingnewyork.com/living_about.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Living</a>, is an example of a building made from these bricks.</p><p>And finally, there's seaweed.</p><p>"[Seaweed is] cheap and can reproduce itself quickly without fertilizers. In architecture, there is use for seaweed as an alternative to plastic insulation but also as cladding," says Lara.</p>
More Money, More Problems<p>While all these alternatives are great, the main cause of our plastic dilemma is not scientific or technological, but economic.</p><p>As long as it remains <a href="https://engineering.mit.edu/engage/ask-an-engineer/why-is-it-cheaper-to-make-new-plastic-bottles-than-to-recycle-old-ones/" target="_blank">cheaper to create new plastics</a> from fossil fuels rather than from bioplastics or from recycling, we're going to be stuck with plastic garbage islands floating in our oceans.</p><p>The true cost to our health and our environment has yet to be included in the equation. But once it is, maybe that is when the real shift will happen.</p>
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Towards the end of the final presidential debate of the 2020 election season, the moderator asked both candidates how they would address both the climate crisis and job growth, leading to a nearly 12-minute discussion where Donald Trump did not acknowledge that the climate is changing and Joe Biden called the climate crisis an existential threat.
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By Zheng Chen and Darren H. S. Tan
As concern mounts over the impacts of climate change, many experts are calling for greater use of electricity as a substitute for fossil fuels. Powered by advancements in battery technology, the number of plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles on U.S. roads is increasing. And utilities are generating a growing share of their power from renewable fuels, supported by large-scale battery storage systems.