There’s no doubt the slow loris is a cuddly cutie from central casting. It is an animal that could easily have been dreamed up in the studios of the Disney Corporation of the 1950s and I’m afraid that, for many Youtube viewers, the loris is seen through such a lens. How can one resist such a fluffy little thing, with its arms outstretched, enjoying a nice tickle? It seems to be the perfect toy, perfect pet, perfect plaything.
One loris in particular, and her penchant for play, has now sparked a debate on the role new media plays in the illegal trade of rare animals. Millions of people have watched a YouTube video of Sonya enjoying a tickle but a new study of the comments they subsequently made has concluded that behind the emotional and sentimental reaction to these cuddly cuties there lurks … well, not much really.
Many viewers who demonstrated their own peculiar joy at Sonya’s antics appear to know little about conservation issues and even less about the cuties they seem to adore. And now Anna Nekaris and the team behind the research say that viewers are indirectly responsible for the demise of the loris by fuelling the trade in this rare creature. They found that YouTube users were quick to post comments about how much they’d like to have a loris of their own but not so quick to pick up on the fact that these animals have been taken from the wild illegally and often suffer terrible cruelty before ending up as the stars of their favourite videos. The research also found that celebrity endorsements generate hits for the videos but do little to raise awareness about conservation. The researchers argue that sites such as YouTube should take a greater responsibility for the videos they host that depict illegally traded animals.
But I wonder whether this really is the fault of social media. On YouTube and other sites, you can also see videos about endangered species, the illegal animal trade, animal cruelty and informative reports on the slow loris from ABC News, NatGeo Wild and the BBC.
Unfortunately, these uploads have attracted far fewer hits than the now infamous tickling Sonya video which started the whole thing off. Nevertheless, these more informative videos still attract viewers in their tens or even hundreds of thousands. What’s more, you can also find many comments posted on the cutie videos which do reveal a strong awareness of the issues and express both anger and frustration at the stupidity of some people and the cruelty of the those involved in the illegal animal trade. Like it or not, YouTube is an important part of the public sphere. It’s a space for public debate as well as for action of a nature that isn’t blind to the life and integrity of other living creatures.
For me what is important is for conservationists and others who care and understand to use this media to challenge and hopefully overturn the shallow mindsets which cannot see beyond the cutie image. Debate is important but so is action to uphold and strengthen the law and conventions governing animal welfare and commerce.
If left to market forces, illicit or otherwise, the problems of species extinction, habitat destruction, animal cruelty and illegal animal trading will not go away. In fact, they will probably get worse. People, especially in Japan and Russia, want a cuddly cutie Loris for a pet. I imagine a number in the UK do too.
The media, old and new, is a space for communication and learning. We need to listen and learn rather than to close off yet more avenues where the possibility of learning about the world beyond our own particular bubbles can conceivably occur.
The real issue, then, is transforming human attitudes to nature and this is a task that needs to be undertaken everywhere. It may mean recognising that when a home video of a cute loris being tickled appears, there should be a warning sign - “stupid, irresponsible behaviour on show”. It might also mean that if a warning sign must appear alongside a report showing the fetid animal markets of Asia, it should not read, “some viewers may find scenes distressing” but “watch it and, if you don’t like it, do something about it”.
I agree with Professor Nekaris that there should be better regulation on media sharing but what these regulations are, or could be, needs to be debated in the public sphere too. That includes social media sites and YouTube. I would hate to see “better regulation” turn into censorship, to be used against the campaigns of organisations like PETA because of the “offensive” nature of the images posted and displayed.