- Conservationists are concerned that the popularity of social media videos depicting lorises as pets is stoking the illegal and often abusive pet trade, placing pressure on already flagging numbers in the wild.
- A study of the top 100 most-viewed loris videos on social media platforms found the vast majority depicted lorises far removed from their natural forest habitat, behaviors and ecology.
- Online videos of pet lorises consistently violated basic animal welfare guidelines, according to the study, with the most popular clips depicting stressed and ill animals.
- The authors say the online content could make it socially acceptable and desirable to own a pet loris, and by engaging with content showing trafficked animals in poor health, viewers are unwittingly complicit in abuse and illegalities.
When we think of iconic animals, we tend to imagine them in the wild — African elephants marching across grasslands, tigers prowling through forests, or humpback whales breaching through ocean waves. But new research suggests that when it comes to lorises, things are different. Many people likely think of the wide-eyed, pint-sized primates native to the forests of South and Southeast Asia as domestic pets rather than wild animals.
This was the conclusion of a study in which researchers scrutinized the top 100 most-viewed and liked loris videos on three major social media platforms — TikTok, YouTube and Giphy. The researchers found that the vast majority of clips showed lorises in captive settings, often in contact with people and displaying signs of stress or poor health, whereas clips of wild lorises behaving naturally in their forest home were largely ignored.
“Almost any platform you look on, if you search for slow loris, you just see these decontextualized pets. You see very few wild animals,” Anna Nekaris, professor of primate conservation at Oxford Brookes University and co-author of the findings, told Mongabay.
Many of the clips that had garnered more than 1 million views and thousands of likes typically showed lorises in captive conditions that the researchers deemed as failing to meet internationally accepted animal welfare guidelines. In contrast, the team identified only two videos of wild lorises in a forest habitat, and these garnered far less audience engagement. The team published their findings in Frontiers in Conservation Science.
The authors said the predominance of “decontextualized” loris videos that display animals far removed from their natural behaviors, ecology and habitat make it socially acceptable and desirable to own one as a pet, a trend that is placing enormous pressure on wild populations by stoking the illegal and abusive wildlife trade.
“Every time that we show imagery that places [lorises] within a human context, it just further entrenches this normalization of pet keeping, which is really dangerous,” Luke Quarles, the study’s lead author who was a master’s student at Oxford Brookes University at the time of the research, told Mongabay.
Quarles and his colleagues found that even conservation and education-oriented organizations like zoos had posted decontextualized loris videos. This is “a wake-up call” for conservationists, he said, to be more mindful of how they represent their wild animal subjects online.
“We need to place more attention on this issue, not just for lorises but other wildlife too,” Quarles said. “Because if we’re normalizing inaccurate portrayals of animals then we’re not doing them justice and we’re potentially working against ourselves.”
Desire stokes illegal, abusive pet trade
Alongside deforestation, the pet trade is driving loris species toward extinction, all of which are classified as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered on the IUCN Red List.
Demand for the fuzzy primates is so high that the pet trade persists despite their inclusion on CITES Appendix I, which prohibits all international trade in all loris species. Crucially, the vast majority of lorises in the trade have likely been poached from the wild, due to the fact that they rarely if ever breed in captivity, even when kept in the best possible conditions, according to Nekaris.
“Almost always when [lorises] are pets outside of their range countries, it’s because they’ve been illegally smuggled,” Nekaris told Mongabay. Therefore, many of the lorises starring in some of the most famous social media videos are in fact victims of the illegal pet trade, she added, whether the owner is aware of it or not.
Nekaris, who also leads the Little Fireface Project, a research, conservation, education and outreach program based in Indonesia, explained that the wildlife trade hits lorises particularly hard because they’re unable to avoid capture. Loris muscle fibers are specially adapted for slow movement — a great way for a nocturnal mammal to conserve energy in the forest canopy, but not a trait that allows for a speedy escape.
As a result, it’s appallingly easy for hunters to take lorises from the wild, Nekaris said, especially from secondary forest that lacks the intricate web of branches, twigs and lianas that lorises use to move about in the canopy.
“When forests are cut for palm oil, for instance, the lorises are left there clinging to the tree trunks, whereas all the other animals run away,” Nekaris said. “Then hunters can go in and take them off those trees and put them in crates and send them off for wildlife trade. … It happens at any time of the year and to any age or sex of loris. … It’s really terrible and their numbers are just plummeting.”
Captivity linked to poor health, wider risks
While social media users and would-be pet loris owners are thrilled to see lorises online, many are likely unaware of the “plethora of health issues and likely early mortality” inflicted upon the animals starring in “cute” viral videos, Quarles said.
In the wild, lorises lead nocturnal, arboreal lives in the forest canopy, slowly picking their way through branches in search of tree sap and insects. This bears stark contrast with how they’re typically kept in captivity and paraded on social media. Most online videos show them awake during broad daylight in brightly lit apartments, sitting either on the floor or on a bed and eating fruit.
This treatment might seem kind from a human perspective, Quarles said, but it amounts to torture for a loris. Bright lights damage their sensitive eyes, and a fruit-filled diet leads to obesity, tooth decay, diabetes and kidney failure — signs and symptoms of which he and his colleagues observed in many online videos.
Moreover, many of the animals that are forced into the pet trade are orphaned during the capture process and are still unable to clean themselves properly without parental help. As one of the world’s only venom-producing mammals, this can present painful problems when animals are deprived of tree branches that they would normally cling to.
“If you’re a tree-dwelling animal that is also venomous and you have toxic urine that you’re sitting in all day, [you] get urine scold and your venom rots your own skin,” Nekaris said, adding that many lorises in the online videos had telltale signs of this issue, including hair loss and abscesses.
Behaviors deemed “cute” by online commenters and seemingly indicative of happiness and contentment are also signs of stress and illness, according to Quarles. Raising the arms above the head — as depicted in a notorious video of a loris being ‘tickled’ — and crouching down low in a cowering posture are part of loris defense mechanisms that are triggered when they feel threatened, he said: “I’ve observed lorises in the wild, and it was uncomfortable to watch lorises perform these behaviors [in the videos].”
The disturbing range of ailments and unnatural behaviors the researchers witnessed in the social media videos contrast with what would be seen in a “properly contextualized” video of a loris, Quarles noted, which would exclusively depict the animal at night, among tree branches, clear of humans or other species and behaving naturally.
Marie Sigaud, a veterinarian and wildlife biologist at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, who was not involved in the new study, said she agreed that social media was in part to blame for the rising trend in exotic species turning up in domestic settings.
Sigaud, who recently documented the prevalence of wild animals, including slow lorises, in animal cafés in Japan, said she was particularly concerned about the ease with which people can arrange interactions with, or even purchase, wild animals online. “It is so easy and not risky to find wildlife species on the internet,” Sigaud told Mongabay in an email. But people are “often not well-informed about the consequences and implications for animal welfare, biodiversity conservation and global health.”
Serious action frustratingly slow
Social media platforms have unrivaled potential to connect people with nature and to raise awareness of conservation issues, the authors said in their study. But more needs to be done to ensure the message is not being lost along the way.
According to Nekaris, social media companies have an ethical duty to take serious action to ensure their users are not unwittingly complicit with the cruelty and illegalities associated with the illegal wildlife trade. However, progress to date has been frustratingly slow.
“We have worked for over a decade asking YouTube, Instagram and Facebook to remove this type of content,” Nekaris said. “Almost without exception, they reply saying that the images, despite containing cruelty as well as illegally trafficked animals, do not violate their user guidelines.”
Stopgap solutions, such as algorithms that add warnings to loris videos advising users that content might relate to the wildlife trade or campaigns that ask original posters to take down harmful content have only gone so far, Nekaris said. Warnings can block appropriate conservation messaging, and often by the time original videos are removed, they’ve already gone viral and been reshared so many times it’s impossible to remove all copies.
Rather, Nekaris would like to see social media companies paying more attention to public reporting mechanisms that flag inappropriate content so that action can be taken swiftly and effectively. The Social Media Animal Cruelty Coalition, for instance, works to provide the public with guidelines for recognizing, avoiding and reporting harmful online wild animal content. Far more online content showing lorises in their natural, wild state would also help, she added.
It seems the popularity of pet lorises on social media has rubbed off on the television industry. The study authors are now addressing what they called a “disturbing” portrayal of a loris as a pet in a popular U.S. television cartoon. The character in the Fox Productions show, titled “HouseBroken,” is an apparent nod to the star of a viral pet pygmy loris YouTube video.
In collaboration with the Asia for Animals coalition, the researchers wrote to the show’s producers on May 22 urging them to change the show’s narrative in order to properly contextualize pygmy lorises in the eyes of their hundreds of thousands of viewers.
Although neither the letter signatories nor Mongabay had received responses to requests for comment from the show’s producers, Nekaris said she was still hopeful that a positive narrative could be achieved that would both educate and entertain viewers.
“I think it would be great for them to say that this is an illegally smuggled pet and have an episode about how that could happen,” Nekaris said. “Then put it into a proper facility, a zoo or captive breeding program, and even explain why it couldn’t go back into the wild. … That could be a really gripping show and a good exit for the character.”
Quarles, L. F., Feddema, K., Campera, M., & Nekaris, K. A. (2023). Normal redefined: Exploring decontextualization of lorises (Nycticebus & Xanthonycticebus spp.) on social media platforms. Frontiers in Conservation Science, 4. doi:10.3389/fcosc.2023.1067355
Nekaris K. A. I., Campbell N., Coggins T. G., Rode E. J., Nijman V. (2013). Tickled to death: analysing public perceptions of ‘cute’ videos of threatened species (slow lorises–Nycticebus spp.) on web 2.0 sites. PloS One 8, e69215. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0069215
Carolyn Cowan is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @CarolynCowan11
FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.