Animals are the coolest. They fascinate us all. So many of us LOVE animals, myself included, but an animal selfie could quite literally kill one.
I 100% completely understand the allure of wanting to get a photo with an animal. I have photos of myself with animals and have made mistakes in wildlife tourism from jumping in the water with wild dolphins to photo ops holding koalas and petting cheetahs. But I have learned there are often huge costs to the animal and no longer do these things.
If you truly love animals and want the best for them, then you need to take into account the animal’s well-being when taking photos and posing for a picture. If you don’t you could really hurt the animal and yourself.
What is an Animal Selfie?
For the purposes of this post, I am defining an “animal selfie” as a photo of a person with a non-domesticated animal. Although selfies technically means the person is taking a photo of themselves, I am including all kinds of photos in this definition for the purpose of animal welfare.
Domesticated animals include pets like dogs and cats, and livestock, which have coevolved with humans for thousands of years. Non-domesticated animals can be found in the wild or captive in a facility run by humans.
There is some grey area where animals are not technically domesticated, but also not wild as they are captive bred for the pet industry (e.g. snakes, fish, sugar gliders). For this post, I am mostly referring to wild animals or captive ones raised in a large facilities such as a zoos or other tourism operation. Although you will see from reading this post that posing with such animals can be confusing to the public.
Why You Should Care: Animal Selfies Gone Very Wrong
Nowadays, almost everyone carries a camera with them everywhere: their phone! It’s common to come across cool animals everywhere too, especially as we continue to encroach on their habitats. On my dog walks on the greenway in suburban Raleigh, I’ve seen snakes, turtles, deer, opossums, owls, and large toads to name a few.
Getting a photo of yourself with the animal is proof that you were close to such a cool animal. Most people have some form of social media and an animal selfie is a sure way to garner a lot of likes and comments. This has caused an explosion of animal selfies.
At what cost?
Yes dying. Below are just some examples of animals that have died because people captured them and handled them for photos:
- Baby dolphin died in Spain after hundreds of tourists hold it and surround it
- Baby dolphin died in Argentina after tourists hold it and keep it out of the water
- Peacock in China died after tourists grabbed it
- Swan died in Macedonia after a woman grabbed it for a photo
- A young bear had to be put down because people were feeding it and taking selfies
Just because an animal is in a “zoo” or even a “sanctuary” does not mean it is legitimate! Just because the people tell you the animals are well taken care of or that they are orphans found in the wild, does not mean it is true.
Animal tourism is a HUGE business. People spend a lot of money to get their pictures taken with tigers, elephants, parrots, monkeys – anything that is cute or exotic. Most likely, this animal lives a crappy life full of suffering.
Such animals are often trained through physical abuse (e.g. elephants are trained with poles that have pokey hooks on the end called bullhooks), live in TERRIBLE conditions (like just a cage), or are deprived of other important needs (e.g. it lives alone, but is a social animal).
In the tourism industry, animals are shuffled around a lot. Even if a facility does look nice, it does not mean the animal will always be there. Once baby animals become older and lose their appeal, they are often sold off to roadside zoos or for canned hunting.
For a full report of the extent of animal suffering in tourism worldwide, read this National Geographic article.
If you can hold a non-domesticated animal, it is most likely not an ethical tourist operation. Even at legitimate zoos where you can touch animals like snakes, they do not let you hold them.
For zoos and aquariums, look for ones accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA), and the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. A true sanctuary always puts the needs of animals first and does not exploit them. A good example of a true sanctuary is the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee.
Lots of the animals you pose with are taken from the wild especially internationally. Tourists love to see exotic animals and other countries may not have as strict laws or enforce those laws. For some species, so many animals are being taken from the wild for tourism, that it is impacting wild populations.
In some cases, animals are harassed to such a point that they cannot carry out functions pertinent to their survival such as foraging and reproduction.
- Sea turtles couldn’t lay eggs in Costa Rica
- Sixty-three species of birds that are critically endangered and endangered are threatened by tourism
You Might Get Seriously Injured or Die
You are putting yourself at risk when you take a selfie with an animal at a close distance. In true selfies, you turn your back, meaning you can no longer see the animal. This is dangerous unless there are other people around you, you are in a car with enough distance from the animal, or the animal is far away from you.
The distance you need to leave between you and the animal will depend on the animal. I wouldn’t get anywhere near close to a bear or a rhino or turn my back, but a turtle would be fine.
Even animals that seem used to tourism can turn on you in a second. Herbivores are just as dangerous as carnivores. I remember visiting Yellowstone National Park in 2004 and watching videos in the tourist center of bison charging and seriously injuring tourists who got too close. Wild animals are wild and no selfie is worth putting your safety at risk!
How to Take an Ethical Animal Selfie:
There are some cases where it is okay to take a selfie with an animal. Quite often, these don’t make the best photos due to the distance you need between you and the animal, but sometimes you can make it work. Here are the rules I follow:
1. Make Sure there is Space Between You and the Wild Animal
If you are on foot, this is critical for your safety. If you are in a car, you can be a little bit more relaxed with this guideline especially if you are on a professional wildlife ecotourism operation (e.g. on safari in Africa). You should make sure someone is watching the animal when you turn your back.
2. Let the Animal Come to You (But Not Too Close)
It’s best to let the animal come to you rather than you chase the animal. There are definitely cases where you see an animal by car, for instance one cross the road, and you want to drive fast up to the spot where it was to see it. This is okay as long as you stick to the road and the animal can escape if it wants to.
When I was whale watching in Vancouver, by law we had to maintain a certain distance between our boat and the orcas. We kept that distance, but when we stopped the boats, the orcas went beneath the water. To our surprise, the surfaced right near the boat and swam RIGHT next to our boat. It was magical and their decision, not ours.
In Kenya, quite frequently we would see a group of elephants walking in the savannas. We would then turn off the engine and they would walk close in front of our car.
If an animal is coming too close to you and you are on foot, you may have to try to scare it away or take cover if you can. For instance, a sign of a rabid animal is that they are not fearful of humans. You do NOT want to let an animal like this approach you.
3. Never Corner an Animal or Prevent it from Getting Away
Once when I was on safari in the Maasai Mara in Kenya, we got word from other guides that there was a mother cheetah with cubs, but you could only see her if you went off road. Normally we never did (even though other tourist vehicles did) because it damages the savanna habitat and can harass wildlife. Our guide made exception for this case because it was so rare to see baby cheetahs and people in our car were begging the guide to see it.
We drove pretty much right up to the mother and saw the babies. She was surrounded by cars. To be honest, she did not look overly stressed, but it didn’t seem like the situation could possibly be good for her and I wanted to get out of there as fast as possible. It didn’t even feel that good to see the babies because of the manner that we saw them in. The guide agreed and we left as fast as possible. Cheetahs hunt during the daytime and tourism can prevent them from successfully hunting even without cubs present or a lot of vehicle harassment.
This was a very different experience from when we saw baby lions in Amboseli National Park. There, the laws are enforced and you have to stay to the road. The lions were laying close to the road and we stopped the car and took photos of them. They had plenty of space in all directions to move if they wanted to.
4. Never Grab or Touch a Wild Animal
If you don’t know how to properly capture or hold a wild animal, you could hurt or kill the animal and hurt yourself. There is a reason why scientists use anesthesia when collaring an animal for research; the capture and handling process is stressful for the animal and dangerous for humans!
In the stories above, the baby dolphins died because children put their finger in the blowhole (where they breathe from) and took them out of water for a long period of time. Some animals died from fright (severe stress). Keep in mind that it is also illegal to touch some animals like endangered species.
5. Never Feed a Wild Animal
Do not feed the animal to get it to come closer to you for a photo!!!!!!
When my husband and I took an ecotourism boat ride in Mexico, the whole group had a lunch break. The SECOND we stepped outside of the covered area of the boat, a gull bombarded my husband and stole some of his food. They knew exactly when the tourists were eating and how to get their food.
This rewards the animal for engaging with humans, which is bad for the animal and again, dangerous to people. Many animals become so used to the human food that it changes their behaviors and it makes them more vulnerable to being hit by cars or being poached.
Some species become so dependent on human food that they cannot survive without it and eventually die, or they become a danger to people. Do not feed wildlife.
6. Do Not Support Operations Where You Can Pose Directly with Animals (No Barriers)
Most animal selfies taken by tourists occur within tourist operations because many wild animals run from humans or are difficult to see in the first place. If a place is profiting off of people taking photos directly with animals without any barriers between the animal and you, it is almost a sign that the facility does not have the animals’ best interest in mind.
Maybe there are exceptions, but I personally do not support any operation that let’s you take photos directly with an animal without barriers. This is different from photos in front of an animal with a barrier or even touching an animal where there is a barrier (which is a red flag, but there are exceptions).
These places tend to be horrible. Don’t do it, even in the US. An example of this would be a place that lets you lay down next to tigers and hold them. Again, read the National Geographic article for the complete story on why. You can see for yourself the types of places these animals live.
7. When in Doubt, Don’t Do It
If you are not sure if facility is ethical for animals or if your behavior is upsetting or disrupting a wild animal, then don’t do it. I personally would rather not harm an animal than have a photo op.
There are always grey areas and ethical debates even amongst scientists. For example, I grew up catching snakes, toads, and frogs. In fact, I have a photo of myself posing with a frog I caught. We always let them go, but by my own standards written here what I was doing was wrong.
These smaller animals don’t seem to be as big of a deal compared to most of the mammal examples I gave above. In fact, in the amphibian lab I worked in in graduate school, we used pitfall traps to capture salamanders. This involves digging a hole in the ground, sealing the hole with a bucket, and putting a little fence up by it. The animal hits the fence and falls in. We then come by, take data on the animal, and let it go.
These animals most definitely survive the experience (the animals are tagged and have been captured again) and therefore could survive a similar experience of you and your child picking up and investigating an animal. On the one hand, experiences like these can create connections between people and nature and encourage them to conserve wildlife. If I didn’t see these animals up close, would I still be passionate about saving them?
On the other hand, these are common species. What if one of these frogs, snakes, or toads was an endangered species? Right here in North Carolina, I’ve seen baby sea turtles making their way to the sea from the beach. I knew not to touch them because all sea turtles are threatened species, but others maybe don’t despite signs.
If I post a selfie of me holding a box turtle (a non-threatened species) does this encourage other people to take similar selfies with other animals? Perhaps an endangered baby sea turtle?
I don’t believe the public can tell the difference. The other day, someone in my blogging group did not know what a mammal was. This is why I think it’s important for us as scientists to really think about the messages our photos convey. People don’t always listen to the audio on videos or read captions.
A Message to Scientists and Rehabbers
We all love animals otherwise we would not be in this field (it is certainly not for the money!). Getting to see an animal up close is most definitely an amazing part of our experience as a wildlife biologist, however, I believe that posting photos of ourselves posing with wildlife even wildlife we study, can send a very confusing message to the public.
Of course I want you to share photos of wildlife, but I think it is best if when we post photos, we follow these guidelines:
Post photos of animals in their natural setting. For example, if I see a box turtle crossing the road and even if I have to move it out of the road, I will take the photo of the turtle in the grass rather than in my hand or pose with it.
If you have the amazing opportunity to get up close to a wild animal or even hold one, I think it is much better to post photos of the animal not being held especially if you do not study that animal or it does not look like you are studying the animal at the moment.
I recently saw a photo of a primatologist holding an orphaned kangaroo like a baby. Although they are a scientist, and had permission from the zoo, I personally feel that posting videos like sends a very confusing message to the public (do as I say, not as I do).
I feel that other photos of researchers posing with anesthetized animals sends similar messages. Lots of tourists in Asia pose with drugged tigers. In the photos of researchers, you cannot always tell the animal is professionally anesthetized.
Post research “action” photos of people and wildlife. We do want to post photos of our work because our work is super cool! We also need to inspire people to conserve wildlife. I think the best way to do this is through action photos where it is obvious the animal is handled by an expert and some form of research is taken place. For example, this might include a scientist drawing blood from an anesthetized animal or one putting an ear tag in a small rodent.
The difference is that these are not things the public can do or is being offered to do and it is clear from the photo that research is taking place: scientists wear gloves and have specialized equipment. There are no tourism operations to my knowledge where you can draw blood from a jaguar or ear tag a cotton mouse. But there are MANY tourist operations where you can hold cute mammals like a baby wrapped in a blanket.
If you hold animals in photos, wear an organizational uniform. In the kangaroo example, I would have had much less problem with it if it were a photo of a zookeeper in uniform with the kangaroo. This signifies to me that it is a professional handling the animal.
Given the state of animal selfies, I think we need to take a deep look at ourselves and the messages that we send.
Thank you for reading! This is definitely a complex issue and I hope we can work together to help stop it. Also check out my podcast episode on this very topic. Let me know if you have any additional tips or examples for me to add.
Stephanie Manka, Ph.D. is a wildlife biologist with 20 years of experience in mammal ecology and conservation, education, and outreach. Read her story to find out how she went from the daughter of a jeweler to a Ph.D. in wildlife biology.