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.
By Victoria Masterson
Using one of the world's problems to solve another is the philosophy behind a Norwegian start-up's mission to develop affordable housing from 100% recycled plastic.
Sustainable Homes<p>UN-Habitat says an <a href="https://unhabitat.org/un-habitat-aims-to-use-plastic-waste-to-support-housing-for-all" target="_blank">estimated 60% of people living in urban areas of Africa are in informal settlements</a>. At the same time, between 1990 and 2017, African countries imported around 230 metric tonnes of plastic, "which mostly ended up in dump sites creating a massive environmental challenge," the agency adds.</p><p>UN-Habitat deputy executive director, Victor Kisob, said the aim of the partnership with Othalo was to "promote adequate, sustainable and affordable housing for all."</p>
Artist's impression of an Othalo community, imagined by architect Julien De Smedt. Othalo<p>Othalo's process involves shredding plastic waste and mixing it with other elements, including non-flammable materials. Components are used to build up to four floors, with a home of 60 square metres using eight tons of recycled plastic. A factory with one production line can produce 2,800 housing units annually.</p><p>Following successful laboratory tests, Othalo's factory in Estonia has started producing components to build three demonstration homes for Kenya's capital, Nairobi; Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon and Dakar, the capital of Senegal.</p><p>Othalo founder Frank Cato Lahti has been developing and testing the technology since 2016 in partnership with <a href="https://www.sintef.no/en/" target="_blank">SINTEF</a>, a 70-year-old independent research organization in Trondheim, Norway, and experts at Norway's <a href="https://en.uit.no/startsida" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">University of Tromsø</a>.</p>
Othalo founder Frank Cato Lahti. Othalo<p>Almost <a href="https://www.un.org/development/desa/publications/2018-revision-of-world-urbanization-prospects.html" target="_blank">seven out of every 10 people in the world are expected to live in urban areas by 2050</a>. More than 90% of this growth will take place in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean.</p><p>"In the absence of effective urban planning, the consequences of this rapid urbanization will be dramatic," UN-Habitat warns.</p><p>Lack of proper housing and growth of slums, inadequate and outdated infrastructure, escalating poverty and unemployment, and pollution and health issues, are just some of the effects.</p><p>Mindsets, policies, and approaches towards urbanization need to change for the growth of cities and urban areas to be turned into opportunities that will leave nobody behind, UN-Habitat says.</p>
Pioneers of Change<p>Reimagining cities and communities for greater resilience and sustainability was a key topic at the<a href="https://www.weforum.org/events/pioneers-of-change-summit-2020" target="_blank"> World Economic Forum's Pioneers of Change Summit 2020</a>.</p><p>The digital event brought together innovators and stakeholders from around the world to explore solutions to the challenges facing enterprises, governments and society.</p><p>Opening the summit, <a href="https://www.weforum.org/events/pioneers-of-change-summit-2020/sessions/opening-plenary-8f731cbc65" target="_blank">Stephan Mergenthaler, the Forum's Head of Strategic Intelligence and a member of the Executive Committee</a>, said: "We need to change the way we produce, the way we live and interact in our cities to make this transition to net-zero emissions a reality…</p><p>"And as this year has illustrated so dramatically, we need to make every effort that we keep populations healthy, if we want to avoid jeopardizing all this progress."</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/11/un-africa-recycled-plastic-housing/" target="_blank">World Economic Forum</a>.</em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649069252#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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By Dolf Gielen and Morgan Bazilian
John Kerry helped bring the world into the Paris climate agreement and expanded America's reputation as a climate leader. That reputation is now in tatters, and President-elect Joe Biden is asking Kerry to rebuild it again – this time as U.S. climate envoy.
Energy Is at the Center of the Climate Challenge<p>The <a href="https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/1/" target="_blank">effects of climate change</a> are already evident across the globe, from <a href="https://theconversation.com/100-degrees-in-siberia-5-ways-the-extreme-arctic-heat-wave-follows-a-disturbing-pattern-141442" target="_blank">extreme heat waves</a> to <a href="https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/12/" target="_blank">sea level rise</a>. But while the challenge is daunting, there is hope. Solar and wind power have become the <a href="https://www.irena.org/publications/2020/Jun/Renewable-Power-Costs-in-2019" target="_blank">cheapest forms of power generation globally</a>, and technology progress and innovation continue apace to support a transition to clean energy.</p><p>In the U.S. under a Biden administration, long-term national climate legislation will depend on who controls the Senate, and that won't be clear until after two run-off elections in Georgia in January.</p><p>But there is no shortage of <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/features/2020-biden-climate-change-advice/" target="_blank">ideas for ways Biden</a> could still take action even if his proposals are blocked in Congress. For example, he could use executive orders and direct government agencies to tighten regulations on greenhouse gas emissions; increase research and development in clean energy technologies; and empower states to exceed national standards, <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-autos-emissions-california/defying-trump-california-locks-in-vehicle-emission-deals-with-major-automakers-idUSKCN25D2CH" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">as California did in the past with auto emission standards</a>. A focus on a just and equitable transition for communities and people affected by the decline of fossil fuels will also be key to creating a sustainable transition.</p><p>The U.S. position as the world's largest oil and gas producer and consumer creates political challenges for any administration. U.S. forays into European energy security are often treated with suspicion. Recently, France blocked <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/frances-engie-backs-out-of-u-s-lng-deal-11604435609" target="_blank">a multi-billion dollar contract</a> to buy U.S. liquefied natural gas because of concerns about limited emissions regulations in Texas.</p><p>Strengthening cooperation and partnerships with like-minded countries will be critical to bring about a transition to cleaner energy as well as sustainability in agriculture, forestry, water and other sectors of the global economy.</p>
Creating a Global Sustainable Transition<p>How the world recovers from COVID-19's economic damage could help drive a lasting shift in the global energy mix.</p><p>Nearly one-third of Europe's US$2 trillion economic relief package <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-07-21/eu-approves-biggest-green-stimulus-in-history-with-572-billion-plan" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">involves investments that are also good for the climate</a>. The European Union is also strengthening its 2030 climate targets, though each country's energy and climate plans will be critical for successfully implementing them. The <a href="https://joebiden.com/clean-energy/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Biden plan</a> – including a $2 trillion commitment to developing sustainable energy and infrastructure – is aligned with a global energy transition, but its implementation is also uncertain.</p><p>Once Biden takes office, Kerry will be joining ongoing <a href="https://www.un.org/en/conferences/energy2021/about#:%7E:text=The%20overarching%20goal%20of%20the,2030%20Agenda%20for%20Sustainable%20Development.&text=Accelerate%20delivery%20of%20United%20Nations,related%20issues%20at%20all%20levels." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high-level discussions on the energy transition</a> at the U.N. General Assembly and other gatherings of international leaders. With the U.S. no longer obstructing work on climate issues, the G-7 and G-20 have more potential for progress on energy and climate.</p><p>Lots of technical details still need to be worked out, including international trade frameworks and standards that can help countries lower greenhouse gas emissions enough to keep global warming in check. <a href="https://www.carbonpricingleadership.org/what" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Carbon pricing</a> and <a href="https://www.csis.org/analysis/how-can-europe-get-carbon-border-adjustment-right" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">carbon border adjustment taxes</a>, which create incentive for companies to reduce emissions, may be part of it. A consistent and comprehensive set of national energy transition plans will also be needed.</p><p>The global shift to <a href="https://www.irena.org/publications/2019/Jan/A-New-World-The-Geopolitics-of-the-Energy-Transformation" target="_blank">clean energy will also have geopolitical implications for countries and regions</a>, and this will have a profound impact on wider international relations. Kerry, with his experience as secretary of state in the Obama administration, and Biden's plan to make the climate envoy position part of the National Security Council, may help mend these relations. In doing so, the U.S. may again join the wider community of countries willing to lead.</p>
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By Maria Caffrey
As we approach the holidays I, like most people, have been reflecting on everything 2020 has given us (or taken away) while starting to look ahead to 2021.