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Viral video of endangered lemur made people want one as a pet: Study

Ring-tailed lemur. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

  • A viral video of a ring-tailed lemur released in 2016 triggered a common sentiment: hundreds of people tweeted about “wanting to own pet lemurs,” a new study has found.
  • Researchers did not find any evidence of people buying or selling lemurs on Twitter. But viral videos like these can reinforce public interest in having wild animals as pets, they say.
  • Searches of the phrase “pet lemur” on Google and YouTube also spiked in the weeks immediately after the video went viral, compared to other weeks between 2013 and 2018.

In April 2016, a video of a ring-tailed lemur in Madagascar went viral. Two boys crouched beside the lemur, occasionally stroking its back. When they paused, the lemur extended its right hand and patted its back, appearing to demand to be scratched again. Within a week of being posted on Facebook, the video was viewed around 20 million times, catapulting the ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta) into brief stardom. It was also shared widely on other social media.

A group of researchers monitored responses to the video on Twitter, and found that it triggered a common sentiment: hundreds of people tweeted about “wanting to own pet lemurs.”

Whether people actually tried to get a pet lemur as a result of the video is unknown — the researchers didn’t find any evidence of people buying or selling lemurs on Twitter. But viral videos like these can reinforce public interest in having wild animals as pets. And this can encourage the illegal pet trade of an already threatened species, the researchers write in a new study published in PLOS One.

“We know that virtually none of the people who tweet about wanting a pet lemur after seeing a viral video actually get one as a pet,” lead author Tara Clarke, who was a visiting assistant professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University at the time of the study, said in a statement. “But without context, the perceptions that people might get from these viral videos or photographs on social media could lead to indirect negative impacts on these animals in the wild.”

Clarke and her colleagues analyzed nearly 14,000 tweets mentioning pet or captive lemurs that were posted over an 18-week period between January and May 2016, that is, before and after the video was released. The number of tweets about someone wanting a pet lemur was fairly low in most weeks, the study found, except for in the two weeks that coincided with the online appearance of the viral video. The researchers also looked at Google Trends data and found that searches for the phrase “pet lemur” on Google and YouTube spiked in the weeks immediately after the video went viral, compared to other weeks between 2013 and 2018.

Ring-tailed lemur with baby. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Viral videos featuring wild animals can help create awareness about species that people wouldn’t otherwise encounter in their lives. But without adequate context about their conservation status or information about the animals’ captive conditions, such videos can be misleading, researchers say, prompting people to think of endangered animals as good pets. For example, a series of viral videos featuring pet pygmy slow lorises (Nycticebus pygmaeus) being tickled or being fed sticky rice has fueled an illegal pet trade in the animals.

The ring-tailed lemur, too, is threatened by the illegal pet trade. Listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List, there may be fewer than 2,500 ring-tailed lemurs left in the wild today (although some researchers say this number is a severe underestimate of the lemur population). While habitat destruction has largely contributed to the species’ decline across Madagascar, thousands of lemurs have also been illegally collected from the wild to be displayed in restaurants and hotels. Selfies posted with lemurs on Facebook are becoming especially popular in Madagascar with improving internet connectivity, the researchers say.

“For many people in Madagascar, taking selfies with lemurs can signal social status,” said co-author Kim Reuter, a lemur expert and CEO of Franklin Scholars, a social enterprise working on peer mentoring programs in British schools.

“Although our study was limited to English-speaking Twitter users, we know how rapidly and powerfully social media can help spread information in developing countries like Madagascar,” Reuter said. “When some of this content goes viral, it could well lead to direct and indirect impacts on wild lemur populations.”

Viral images of endangered animals can fuel demand for them as pets. Image of crowned lemur courtesy of Pet Lemur Survey.

Banner image of ring-tailed lemur by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Citation:

Clarke, T. A., Reuter, K. E., LaFleur, M., & Schaefer, M. S. (2019). A viral video and pet lemurs on Twitter. PLOS One14(1), e0208577.