Monday, June 26, 2017

Is that "cute" animal picture a depiction of abuse?

Behind the chimp-proof glass is former entertainment chimp Kendall (now in a social group at the North Carolina Zoo)

Cute animal pictures are the best part of social media.  But as a primatologist, there's also "cute" pictures that make me cringe. Every birthday there's at least one picture posted to my wall of an entertainment chimp fear-grimacing. And frequently, I have to be the killjoy explaining to someone why the picture or video they're sharing is problematic.

This happens too often. Today, the picture drawing my ire was an entertainment chimp illustrating a news story on the Science magazine website (though they quickly changed it when we raised concerns on Twitter- thanks @NewsfromScience for being responsive!). 

No one wants to be the killjoy ruining the fun. But if you understand the context behind the picture, it stops being a cute picture, and becomes a disturbing depiction of abuse and suffering. 

Several studies demonstrate that pictures of primates increase the belief that they are desirable as pets, or aren't endangered. And viral videos can increase demand for the illegal pet trade. 

So how do you tell the difference? Sometimes it's hard, but other times it's very simple. These guidelines are focused on primates, but apply to many wild animals as well.

1) Does the picture depict a primate dressed in human clothes, wearing makeup, playing with phones, or otherwise depicting unnatural behavior?

DON'T SHARE. These are tell-tale signs that the animal is in the entertainment industry, or a pet. In both these situations, animals are taken from their mothers at an early age, deprived of typical socialization, and often abused and mistreated. Occasionally there are exceptions (photoshop or monkeys grabbing phones from tourists), but these pictures can promote the idea that they are desirable pets.

2) Is the primate in an unnatural-looking setting?

PROCEED WITH CAUTION. Sometimes these are pictures of pets, or animals housed in a roadside zoo or pseudo-sanctuary. However, in other cases it might be animals in an unnatural-looking but enriching enclosure at an accredited zoo. For example, the bonobos at the Columbus Zoo have a very unnatural looking indoor enclosure, but they have a lot of fun climbing structures and varied enrichment.

Juvenile bonobo at the Columbus Zoo (where the enclosure is unnatural but enriching!)

3) Does the picture show an unnatural pairing (for example, a monkey and dog pair) that probably doesn't occur in the wild?

PROCEED WITH CAUTION. Some of these pictures may be unlikely friendships that occur in the wild, or in humane captive environments (such as zoos or accredited sanctuaries). However, exploitative roadside zoos and pseudo-sanctuaries put unlikely pairings together because it generates attention. See if you can figure out where it was taken before you share.

4) Does the picture depict a "wild" primate sitting on someone's shoulders?

DON'T SHARE. And more importantly, don't put yourself in this situation! These may be wild animals that are fed to encourage tourist interaction, or they may be captured animals that are abused and displayed for tourists. It's dangerous for both the animals and, and the humans, because primates can cause serious injuries and diseases can easily be transmitted between humans and primates (and Herpes B, which causes benign cold sores in macaques, is lethal to humans). 

5) Is the picture a gorilla splashing around in a giant kiddie pool at an accredited zoo?

SHARE AWAY! Provided it is a picture from an accredited zoo (context is everything), this is one of those situations in which the unnnatural setting provides a captive animal with a lot of fun enrichment!

Still have questions? That's okay, there's often a lot of gray area or lack of context. If you're not sure, but think it MIGHT be exploitative... err on the side on the side of caution and avoid the "share" button. And if you're not sure, feel free to ask a primatologist (if you tweet me @MARspidermonkey, I"ll give you my assessment)!