Why you should think twice before sharing that cute animal video

November 10, 2015

Once the purview of world-traveling explorers lugging expensive professional gear, wildlife footage can now be captured and shared by nearly anyone. Drones and GoPros have made it easier for amateurs to shoot quality video outdoors, while social media and cell phone cameras have turned backyard animals and pets into documentary subjects. Animal videos are so popular that nearly half of video-posting internet users make them. 

That rise in animal fodder is page-view gold for news and media organizations that aggregate popular content to bring viewers to their sites. But like any new source of wealth, it also carries the risk for harm or exploitation.

Last month, for example, a video of a group of boaters poking a sleeping otter went viral, only to invoke the wrath of wildlife biologists who pointed out that pestering an otter is illegal under both the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act–not the kind of behavior a news site should deem “hilarious” or “cute.” 

Sharing fluff videos may be one of the more lighthearted (or banal, depending on one’s perspective) aspects of the modern journalist’s job, but the content’s “cute” status doesn’t negate a journalist’s responsibility for it–whether that content comes in the form of video, photography, or audio. “They can all lie,” says Andrew Seaman, chair of the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics committee. “So it’s really the job of a journalist to go in there and make sure they’re putting that in fuller context.”

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The to-share or not-to-share discussion often surges after an act of violence or terrorism. When two journalists from Virginia local station WDBJ7 were fatally shot on camera in August, the media world split on the value of showing the video to its audiences. (In the United States, that debate carries particular weight, as experts increasingly recognize that choices of what to show can either stoke or calm our absurd epidemic of mass shootings.)

While implications for sharing animal videos are generally not so dire, there can be indirect effects on the animals from which newsrooms are profiting. Videos of exotic pets, like the slow loris videos that were wildly popular a few years back, can promote illegal wildlife trade. Showing animals in captivity can also inadvertently support animal neglect, mistreatment, or abuse.

There’s a lot of disagreement about where is the line between cute animal behavior and behavior that involves something that would be abusive.

Without awareness of these problems, a seemingly cute animal video can appear so innocuous that the normal process of vetting content can go ignored. Otters don’t have big endangered species campaigns like rhinos or tigers; they don’t look like Shamu or Flipper, the animals most commonly associated with marine mammals. It takes more than a passing knowledge of federal wildlife law to know that all marine mammals, endangered or otherwise, are protected from harassment by humans, and that simple pestering counts as harassment. But that’s what separates Gawker from Facebook: The person doing the sharing is being paid to share it appropriately.

“In any instance where a person would have good reason to think, Whoa, what’s going on here, is this some kind of harassment or abuse of an animal? certainly you have an obligation to explore further before you would use it,” says Robert Dreschel, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “There’s a lot of disagreement about where is the line between cute animal behavior and behavior that involves something that would be abusive. I would err on the side of caution.”

Sometimes, that obligation is forgotten. VICE’s Motherboard, for example, posted a video last month of a reptile perched atop a walking robot suit, because “Tuesdays suck.” A comment on Facebook prompted the writer to reach out to an ecologist, who pointed out that the horned lizard appeared to be in distress and expressed concern that the video could inspire similar behavior. That sort of expert consulting–at the least, a quick search for any potential issues–should be done before publishing any video.

Or, if the case may be, don’t publish it at all. The Huffington Post covered the otter debacle, detailing the hefty fines associated with marine mammal harassment and quoting several experts on the dangers of touching an otter. But the post still included the video. “That’s just really passing the buck on your own responsibility,” Dreschel says.

Laura Dattaro is a science journalist, writer, and producer based in New York.