ZOO COLUMN: 'Liking' sometimes does moreharm than good to wildlife

11/22/2013

My job at Lee Richardson Zoo is manager of distance learning and technology. As it sounds, this position places me deep into the online world. I enjoy my position and am always on the lookout for new and unique ways to share our message of conservation to the world using these wonderful and sometimes intimidating tools of instant communication. I was doing some research to improve our message, when I discovered that the Internet, especially social media sites, can actually be more damaging than helpful to wildlife conservation efforts in some cases. So please think before you click that next "like" for a cute animal picture on Facebook or video on YouTube.

My job at Lee Richardson Zoo is manager of distance learning and technology. As it sounds, this position places me deep into the online world. I enjoy my position and am always on the lookout for new and unique ways to share our message of conservation to the world using these wonderful and sometimes intimidating tools of instant communication. I was doing some research to improve our message, when I discovered that the Internet, especially social media sites, can actually be more damaging than helpful to wildlife conservation efforts in some cases. So please think before you click that next "like" for a cute animal picture on Facebook or video on YouTube.

How could simply "liking" something hurt wildlife? It isn't an obvious connection, but when you think about the psychology of the situation, it begins to make sense. When people are continuously exposed to images through social media, the result is people then begin to treat that thing as common. For inanimate objects, this is not a problem. For living things, however, this can become an issue. One excellent example of this involves an endangered species that is found right here at Lee Richardson Zoo.

A few years ago, a video showed up on YouTube of a slow loris being "tickled." I put "tickled" in quotes because, although it may have appeared in the video that the animal was enjoying the experience, those who work closely with the species know that its posture was actually a fear response. The video was so cute that it quickly acquired more than 10 million views. You might wonder if this video would bring awareness to an endangered species. It did bring awareness, but not the helpful sort of awareness. It perpetuated the pet trade, because everyone wanted this cute animal. The truth is that slow lorises do not breed well in captivity. While Lee Richardson Zoo has been very successful breeding this species for the Association of Zoos & Aquariums Species Survival Plan, the total number bred throughout the world is only around one or two dozen each year. This means that every image or video depicting a slow loris as a pet is an endangered animal pulled from the wild. What these videos also don't show is that this seemingly cute and docile species is actually a venomous primate who has had their teeth pulled out by pliers to make them "safe" for sale. Since this video went viral, slow loris populations have declined drastically. Knowledge of the slow loris' plight is growing, but as many people have learned, once something is on the Web it can linger for a long time, true or false, good or bad. For example, just last month the singer Rhianna took a "selfie" picture of herself with a slow loris that was being sold in a market in Thailand. But what can you do to help?

Think before you click. We all have a tendency to instantly click "like" on anything we find to be cute or adorable, and while you might not want a loris or other exotic wildlife for a pet, by clicking "like" you are condoning others to have these animals as pets. A little bit of research or hesitation before clicking helps prevent the next detrimental wildlife fad. Social media pages are self-policing. That means it is up to the viewer of an image, video or article to report it. For YouTube, you can click "dislike" and there is even a "flag" tab that allows you to report a video. This procedure of reporting only takes seconds and can help slow or even stop the progression of these dangerous fads.

If you would like to have a safe and beneficial experience with endangered animals, just come to Lee Richardson Zoo or other facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, where you know that the animals are being properly cared for. In addition, the money you spend at accredited zoos goes toward the care of wildlife in the facility and to animals in the wild. At Lee Richardson Zoo, the funds collected from our duck feeders go to conservation efforts within Kansas and worldwide. To keep up with happenings at the zoo and wildlife "like" our Facebook or YouTube page, and you can be confident that "liking" Lee Richardson Zoo does not harm wildlife. Also visit us at www.leerichardsonzoo.org.

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