UNTOLD – “Exotic Pet Trade Exposed”
Last week, Channel 4 released a documentary as part of its UNTOLD series asking if social media is to blame for the rise in “exotic pet” keeping in the UK and whether it was time to ban “exotic pets” in Britain.
While the documentary covered some interesting angles, it failed to address any potential solutions including 1) what we as users of social media can do to stop promoting problematic content (and what we shouldn’t do) and 2) what can be done longer term to curb the trade in wild species kept as pets.
The influence of social media
Recognising that social media is driving an increase in demand for wild species of animals kept as pets is not new. From otters to bushbabies, numerous studies have demonstrated that social media normalises the keeping of wild animals as pets. When we see images of wild species in domesticated settings, in close contact with humans, it can alter people’s perceptions of the animal as wild and makes keeping them as a ‘pet’ seem much more acceptable. This kind of content often leads to an increase in demand for the animal, fuelling more breeding, more sales, and more social media content, content which can reach millions of people worldwide.
What’s the problem of keeping wild species as pets?
Keeping a wild animal in someone’s home is not the same as keeping a domesticated species. Even if bred in captivity, wild species retain their natural instincts and have complex needs that can’t truly be met in domesticated settings. Take macaws for example, one of the specific species mentioned in the UNTOLD documentary. In the wild macaws live in dense tropical rainforests, they gather in flocks of up to 30 individuals and fly freely across the forest to feed, roost or explore as they choose. No matter the intentions of the human, the very nature of their captivity in people’s homes or gardens means that they are inherently denied many of these natural experiences, instincts and behaviours. When animals are not free to eat, move, behave and socialise as they would in the wild, they suffer.
Content, clicks and cash
However innocent content featuring wild species kept as pets may seem, social media promotes a false picture of captivity for the animals. Much of the most popular content focuses on cuteness or entertainment in order to drive engagement and bring in new audiences.
In many cases, audiences do not realise that many of the most common content activities - animals performing tricks, dressing animals up with accessories or in costumes or “unboxing” animals – exploit the animal for clicks, likes and - for many of the biggest social media influencers who financially gain from their content – for money. Yet this kind of content trivialises the captivity of the animal and fails to convey the true complexity of the animal’s welfare needs or the many negative aspects of keeping wild species as pets (from both the human and the animal’s perspectives).
There is also extremely disturbing, explicitly cruel content created and shared via social media as evidenced by the recently uncovered widespread abuse of macaques kept as pets. As social media thrives on any engagement, whether positive or negative, it is a sad fact that often the most cruel content can end up reaching millions of people.
Impulse purchasing made easy
In the UK, it is currently very easy to buy wild species to keep as pets in the UK, both IRL and online. Given the widespread availability of animals to purchase via social media and online marketplaces, it only takes a few clicks for someone to move from watching someone else’s content to buying their own macaw, macaque, or meerkat, often terribly unprepared for the realities of that decision.
While we do have legal protections for all animals kept under human control in the UK, the existing legal framework is very limited in terms of the protection it provides to wild species bred, bought, sold and kept as pets, and only prohibits the keeping of a comparatively small number of species. As highlighted in the documentary, much of the trade goes unregulated. For example, at present in the UK, there are no specific laws in place to regulate what animals can be sold online, when and how.
What can we do?
The documentary’s presenter, Nadeem Perera, concluded that “being caged up in someone’s living room is not good for their physical or mental wellbeing. Sanctuaries are full to the brim with that situation only getting worse. Surely we can enjoy these animals not caged up in somebody’s house but out in nature where they belong”.
Unfortunately, the documentary failed to highlight the vital role that we, as users of social media, play in this problem. The very nature of social media means that every engagement, every share, every like, every comment - whether positive or negative - promotes the content further, increasing engagement, rewarding content creators, and giving them social licence to create more of the same.
We can stop contributing towards this cycle. Once we can recognise harmful content on social media, we can stop engaging with it – stop watching, stop sharing and stop commenting. If content features clear animal abuse or cruelty, we can also report it directly to the respective platform through their reporting functions.
Looking to the future
Although UK law currently does not reflect the problematic realities of the trade in wild species kept as pets, a new approach is gaining traction across Europe – the ‘positive list’.
Rather than legislation determining which animals people CANNOT keep, a ‘positive list’ lists all the species of animal which people ARE allowed to buy, sell and keep in their households as pets based on scientific assessments of their welfare needs, among other criteria. Any specie of animal which is not listed as part of the positive list is, by default, not allowed to be traded or kept (or in some circumstances, may only be sold or kept under special permit).
A positive list could therefore be a very powerful tool to reduce and regulate the trade in wild species of animals sold as pets in homes, on the high street online, and of course, on social media.
World Animal Protection is a member of the Social Media Animal Cruelty Coalition (SMACC). If you would like to learn more about animal cruelty content online, please visit the SMACC website.
You can read more about positive lists here.
Note on terminology: World Animal Protection avoids using the term “exotic pet wherever possible because it’s an outdated and highly problematic term. Wild species do not become ‘pets’ just because they’re kept in someone’s home and the word ‘exotic’ acknowledges that these are wild animals, without being open about it.