If you cooked a delicious meal, perfected a pretty hairstyle, or travelled to an exotic place but then forgot to post about it on social media, did it ever really happen at all?

On one hand Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter can be great communication tools. But there’s also a darker side to these platforms—specifically when it comes to the ethical treatment of animals.

In theory using social media is a great way to spread the word against animal cruelty and to find backing for causes in support of our furry (or scaly, or feathery) friends. But for years now these platforms have also played a growing role in advertising and advocating the illegal wildlife trade and animal cruelty, both directly through illicit sales and indirectly through tourism selfies and misleading posts.

Concerns with the illegal wildlife trade

A new report from the Cheetah Conservation Fund brought these issues back to light recently when it revealed that at least 1,367 cheetahs were put up for sale on social media and on online marketplaces since 2012. Of the 906 posts they found, 77 per cent were on Instagram, 11 per cent were on YouTube, and four per cent were on a Kuwait-based app called 4sale.

Cheetahs aren’t the only animals (or animal parts) being hocked illegally online. The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) also released a report that tracked the online wildlife trade on marketplaces and social media platforms over six weeks last year in France, Germany, Russia, and the U.K.

During that time it found 5,381 ads or posts on 106 marketplaces and four social media platforms. Four of every five posts were live animals for sale while the other 20 per cent were posts selling animal parts and products. Overall reptiles (37 per cent) and birds (30 per cent) were the most popular, followed by ivory related products (18 per cent).

#TourismSelfies

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While these posts appear malicious and without any regard for the animals at stake, they aren’t the only problem. Unaware animal-lovers are being inadvertently persuaded into harmful behaviour too thanks to viral videos and exotic animal selfies.

When the video of Sonya the Slow Loris, a “pet” that supposedly loved to be tickled, went viral, the demand for slow lorises as pets dramatically increased. But in reality experts say Sonya was showing signs of distress, and the sudden demand for her kind as pets drove illegal poaching. Today we have another species that is quickly approaching extinction as a result.

Meanwhile tourism selfies with animals continues to be of great concern to conservationists and advocates for the ethical treatment of animals. While some tour guides sell the idea that it’s harmless to ride an elephant or pet a tiger in Asia, in reality those animals were tortured into submission in order to “hang out” with tourists.

Huggable sloths, dolphins that “swim” with humans, monkeys performing in the streets, and exotic pets like tigers, lions, or koalas also fall into that category. If it seems unnatural that the animal would behave the way it is, it’s probably a good idea to question how it’s been trained and for what purposes.

Knowing the difference

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According to the World Animal Protection (WAP), a Canadian animal advocacy group that has spent hours researching such social media posts, social media is brimming with examples of animals that are made to suffer or are tortured for tourist profit.

“One of the biggest culprits is the growing popularity of wildlife selfies where tourists, with the help of tour operators, capture and share images of themselves with wild animals—exploiting them as photo props,” WAP said in a report. “Using a wild animal as a photo prop in a wildlife selfie can inflict stress and suffering on the animal, robbing them of their freedom and encouraging contact with humans that makes their chances of survival back in the wild that much harder.”

WAP notes that behind-the-scenes these animals are often beaten into submission, taken as babies from their mothers, and kept in cramped and dirty conditions that are “entirely invisible” to tourists.

The problem is that for true animal lovers it can sometimes be hard to discern when an animal is just being “affectionate” and when they’re actually in a bad situation. According to the organization any kind of selfie in which the animals are not in their native habitat or are engaging with humans is probably the latter.

“These are people who love animals, they want to have an authentic experience with an animal, and this just isn’t it. Getting too intimate with animals for the purpose of taking photographs is an attitude we need to change,” WAP spokesperson Cassandra Koenen told CBC News.

A social change

For its part, Instagram has always banned its 800 million users from engaging in the illegal trade of animals or animal parts, but as of last December it’s also sensitive to particular hashtag searches. Now when users look up things like #slothhugs or #elephantride a warning window appears.

“Animal abuse and the sale of endangered animals or their parts is not allowed on Instagram,” the window reads. “You are searching for a hashtag that may be associated with posts that encourage harmful behaviour to animals or the environment.”

Instagram then invites users to continue, cancel, or to learn more about animal exploitation in its Help Centre.

“We care about our community, including the animals and the wildlife that are an important part of the platform,” Instagram spokeswoman Emily Cain told National Geographic. “It’s important for the community to be more aware. We’re trying to do our part to educate them.”

Currently, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube still allow users to search for these kinds of posts without any warning or filter.

“We’re asking them to put some language in their community guidelines specifically around animal welfare,” Koenen also told CBC. “It’s the cruelty that happened leading up to this that’s an issue for us.”

More ethical options


The good news for animal lovers and social media hounds alike is that there are animal-friendly sanctuaries and travel adventures out there in which you can interact with animals in a responsible manner. Whether it’s feeding elephants at the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand or going on a responsible Jaguar Safari in Brazil, a little research about the destination and how they treat their animals goes a long way.

Especially before you post.