Is TikTok promoting the exotic pet trade?
The platform may have pledged to prevent exotic animal trafficking online but wild animals are still being traded as pets
You may have become familiar with exotic animal trends while scrolling through TikTok; animals like foxes, raccoons, kinkajous, and monkeys have become a new kind of online influencer. However, these viral videos can be incredibly dangerous as they entice the public to regard these animals as cute and cuddly, painting a very different picture to the reality of sharing your home with a wild animal.
On March 30th 2021, TikTok joined the coalition to end wildlife trafficking online, associating with the world’s biggest social media companies to shut down online marketplaces for trafficking. But the platform itself may be contributing to the issue without even realizing it. So far, the coalition has reported the blocking and removal of 3 million endangered species listings from their platforms, yet their main focus has been the detection of illegal wildlife products and not the fact that live animals are illegally taken from the wild and traded as pets.
How do online platforms contribute to wildlife animal trafficking?
Wildlife trade, which is already a multibillion‐dollar industry, has increased in recent years because of advances in technology. After habitat destruction, the wildlife trade is the second-biggest threat to species according to a WWF report. More than 15,000 African elephants are killed every year to meet the demand for illegal products as thousands more animals, plants, and associated products are traded globally as food, pets, medicines, clothing, and trophies.
The exotic animal trade is very difficult to contain, as in the case of the US, ownership laws vary depending on the state, so while animal trafficking is illegal, exotic animal owners are often not breaking the law.
In March, the owner of @ripleythemonkey explained how she got Ripley, a 16-week old Marmoset monkey for $4000 from a breeder from Tennessee — where owning such an animal is legal. These videos may provide illegal traders with a free advertisement, as users keep asking these owners where and how to get these animals.
When does it get out of control?
According to the RSPCA, approximately 5,000 primates are kept as pets in the UK, many of them kept alone in birdcages in living rooms and fed junk food.
@hereisyourmonkeycontent is one of the most famous TikTok accounts with 16.5m followers.
Most of the content shows “George Boy”, a brown tufted capuchin, unboxing different packages. Although he seems extremely pleased with himself as he figures out how to open mysterious packages, living in a home can cause irreversible psychological issues to develop in such animals, because it is essentially an environment which lacks the social stimulation they need.
Jeni Wong, who has been working for over 10 years in Merazonia, a wildlife rescue and rehabilitation centre located in the Amazon rainforest, explains the effects of keeping wild animals such as this primate can be incredibly damaging for both the animal and the human carrier.
“These monkeys are some of the most intelligent of all primate species, they live in large groups, with complex social structures,” says Jeni. “They can be very territorial and aggressive, so unlike the cute adorable scenes this video portrays”.
She explains how this aggressive behaviour is natural in the wild when overcoming differences and developing and maintaining a social hierarchy within the group. The animal is unaware that this behaviour is unacceptable in a human environment and is just doing what comes naturally — the reason why we should never push the boundaries and interact with these species on this level.
The true reality is that people may be sharing their home with animals that when reaching adolescence could easily become destructive, attack and badly injure your child, family member or a visiting friend.
“I have experienced the effects of these misconceptions all too often when families give up their adult monkey due to aggressive behaviour. Unfortunately, by then it is often too late for the animal and the psychological damage is done”, she says. After an extended time in captivity, it tends to be incredibly hard to rehabilitate that animal back into the wild as they have not been allowed to develop the social awareness and instincts they need to survive.
These animals aren’t captured in a humane way either. The mothers are usually shot dead and the babies are ripped away from their arms, so each capture of a live infant like this one comes at a terrible cost to their populations; many are smuggled in secret compartments in specially-designed crates to be transported from one continent to another.
Videos that show animal attacks or people hurting animals violate TikTok’s community guidelines. Some less serious videos of raccoons and squirrels biting people are still posted.
25-year-old Alex Kirk, Animal Conservative and Biodiversity student, told explained how he took care of a baby grey squirrel for three months after rescuing it during a walk, as the animal had fallen from his nest. He says the purpose was never to keep him as a pet: “We were trying to help this animal that was injured and release him back into the wild”.
However, grey squirrels are an invasive species, so from December 2019, it’s illegal in the UK for anyone to release them into the wild. “If you catch one of them you have to have it killed or kill it yourself, that’s the law, but I’m not willing to do that, it was really cute and helpless so we had to help him”, Kirk says.
Instead, he handed him to a woman that has squirrels of her own and “she put our squirrel in with hers to get him used to other squirrels in the wild — he has probably been released by now”.
Unfortunately, this is a rare case and because of a lack of knowledge from the owners, exotic pet mortality is high and survivors are often abandoned by their owners and released into an environment that is completely unsuitable for the species’ needs.
When reintroducing species, a soft release is better for the animal in the long term as it increases the chances of survival. This means that you have to do it gradually, get them used to the sounds and smells and allow them to acquire skills needed for survival before releasing them.
Accounts like @Kylethomas and @Ricoexotic, who have different kinds of wild animals, do not encourage people to consider them as pets. Kyle Thomas says in one of his videos that they are very hard to maintain, and when @Ricoexotic got asked in one of his videos, “how do you qualify for a pet monkey?” he explains the animal “needs your full attention” and “they may attack your kids, most likely, they will attack your kids”.
This is the message that many of these creators want to convey to their followers on TikTok, but it’s difficult to spread this message because when sharing what it’s really like to home an exotic pet, this type of content does not get as many views.
Are governments doing enough to protect these animals?
Each country has different laws regarding the ownership of exotic species, so it is difficult for platforms like TikTok to ban a video with content that is perfectly legal. “Part of the difficulty in policing is that they are not going to have the manpower to watch every video or the specialization to tell if an animal was an exotic one”, says social media expert, Dr Miriam Johnson. “Algorithms are not particularly great at recognizing whether content is good or bad and I can’t imagine that companies are going to spend their time and energy trying to build algorithms to look at animals, unfortunately”.
The problem lies with the government bodies that decide which species are acceptable to be kept as pets. Keeping primates as pets is set to be banned in the UK after evidence of ‘poor welfare’ in people’s homes. However, it is currently fairly easy to obtain a licence to keep exotic species in the UK — many don’t even need a licence — and often there is a distinct lack of enforcement of current welfare legislation.
“I believe that the only way to control the illegal trade is to ban the keeping of all exotic animals as pets worldwide”, says Wong. Most animal welfare and conservation organisations also strongly disagree with the concept of exotic pets being kept as pets and have lobbied for a ban for years.
“At the very least I feel there should be one blanket rule for all nations so trade between countries and continents is transparent for each individual species”, she adds. “I also feel there should be far more conditions set in order to obtain licenses for ownership (research conditions) as this will probably deter most from trying to become a licence holder and more effort made to ensure these owners are satisfying the needs of their animals after purchase”.
One of the alternatives for TikTok is to encourage user reporting. Instagram did something similar in 2017 when they launched a hashtag pop-up alert that educated users about illegal wildlife trade when searching for one of the 250 search terms associated with wildlife trade, but the platform would have to be on board with that.
Although these videos may provide illegal traders with free advertisement, they can be useful to the ministry of environment in locating, confiscating and successfully relocating illegally obtained animals and as an open source for journalists to reveal more about this shadowy trade.