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The Animal Fact Checker

May 8, 2020
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These days, people are desperate for good news. Cheerful stories about animals reclaiming their territory––elephants roaming free in China, dolphins swimming through the canals in Venice––have gone viral. And then comes Natasha Daly, a reporter and editor for National Geographic, who diligently points out that many of the freewheeling fauna reports are false. She doesn’t like to disappoint people. But she hates to see fake news about animals.

Daly, who is thirty-four, with deep auburn hair and thick-rimmed glasses, started writing for National Geographic almost five years ago. She’s carved out a beat as a watchdog for animal welfare, exploitation, and conservation. “I really gravitated toward the idea that animals can’t tell their own stories,” she said recently. “In many ways, it’s up to us as journalists to find them and pull them out and tell them for them.” One of the highlights of her career was a yearlong investigation into how exotic-wildlife tourism—elephant “sanctuaries” in Thailand or circus bears in Russia––involves animal abuse.

Daly started covering the coronavirus back in January, when it was thought that the disease had originated from a wildlife market. Soon, she wrote one of the earliest reports on the biggest animal story of the pandemic: Nadia, a tiger at the Bronx Zoo in New York, tested positive for COVID-19. Then, two weeks later, she was scoping out a database run by the US Department of Agriculture and spotted another infection, this time of a New York–based lion. She called her source at the zoo. For two hours, she didn’t hear back; then she received a press release stating that seven more big cats had tested positive. “To me, it was just a huge shock,” Daly said, “because it was a lack of transparency on the part of the zoo, and also the government, when this is crucial public information that a new species—three lions—had tested positive, and four other tigers.”

She began noticing return-of-the-wild stories a couple weeks after stay-at-home orders were put in place. “I thought, This is weird, because I could tell pretty quickly they were fake,” she said. She started with Burano, a small Italian island in the Venice area, where viral tweets claimed that swans had suddenly appeared. But that was nothing new, nothing related to the pandemic, Daly pointed out; swans have always been around those parts. Many National Geographic readers thanked Daly for correcting the record. Others felt betrayed. “Someone said to me, ‘It’s basically like you just told us there’s no Santa Claus.’ Someone else was like, ‘You must be really fun to hang out with at parties.’ ” 

Undeterred, Daly turned next to supposed sightings of a tea party of drunken elephants in China, which she debunked by reading translated versions of Chinese news reports proving that the story was made up. Then there was a rumor about Vladimir Putin setting lions free to roam the streets of Russia, as a way to keep people inside. “I mean, that was so obviously fake, and most people knew it was fake,” she said. “But some people didn’t.”

When she saw a video of Sandra, an orangutan in Florida, washing her hands, supposedly mimicking her coronavirus-cautious caretaker, Daly called the sanctuary where Sandra lives. The owners, who had seen their video spread under false pretenses and pulled it from YouTube, thanked Daly for asking. The clip was months old, they said, predating any known coronavirus presence in the United States. The sanctuary owner she interviewed “was appreciative of the fact that my request wasn’t for licensing the video,” Daly said. She laughed. “I was just interested in actually telling the real story.”

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Daly has debunked claims about a new and glorious presence of ducks in the fountains in Rome (they are there, but they always were), peacocks in India (again, they live there), dolphins swimming through Venice (the photos in question were actually taken in Sardinia), deer on an Indian highway (it’s Japan, and the photo is years old). Millions have read Daly’s reports. The mixed reactions continue pouring in. “I get it,” she said. “People really want some happy news to believe.”

Daly, however, has never felt disappointed that a happy animal story isn’t true. Mostly, she feels a responsibility as a journalist to tell the truth: “Whether it’s something really high-stakes that affects people’s livelihood, or if it’s something that’s pretty low-stakes, like animals not really in a place where a post is saying they are.” Besides, false stories can have adverse effects on conservation efforts, she explained. “Conservationists say that, actually, we’ve changed ecosystems on earth to the point where they can’t recover without our assistance and help,” she said. “So to have that sort of mindset that we just need to do nothing, it almost undermines the really real and important work that conservationists do.”

At least some good news can be believed: there really are goats wandering through Wales and orcas in parts of Canada where they’re typically rare. Daly wants to highlight these stories, too. “I always want to empower readers to come away from it feeling like there’s actually something they can do in their own lives to protect animals.” But for now, as she shelters from the pandemic in Washington, DC, with her husband and three rabbits, she’s happy to have instilled some healthy skepticism. The humans in her life understand, she said. “I’m constantly getting texts from my friends and family with social media posts they see about animals, like, ‘Is this real? I don’t want to fall for this.’ ”

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Savannah Jacobson is a contributor to CJR.