One of the great things about being a biologist is getting to work in the field and connect with wildlife. Through my career, I have enjoyed many unforgettable close encounters with various species, including turtles, birds, marine mammals, invertebrates and a lot of fish, especially sharks and rays.
My research program also has a strong focus on citizen science. I use data collected by recreational scuba divers and snorkelers to describe marine animal populations and conservation needs. Therefore, I work closely with the tourism industry.
Because of these connections, I am often asked to advise on best practices for tourists interacting with wildlife. In response I tell them that scientific studies have documented how unnecessarily handling or getting too close to wild animals can have lasting consequences – including causing stress which can interfere with their feeding or mating success.
Reflecting on my own experiences, however, I recognize that I and many of my peers have not always followed those best practices. Sure, we need to have close encounters with wildlife to do our work, and we have the necessary training and permits. We often have reason to photograph animals in the course of our research – for example, to quickly capture information such as size, health, sex, and geographic location. But we do not have permission, or good reason, to engage in recreational activities with our animal subjects – including restraining them for selfies.
Rules for researchers
Scientists who work with animals operate under different rules from those that the public is supposed to follow. Researchers receive funding, institutional permission and public support to conduct their studies, which include close encounters with wildlife.
To receive these privileges, scientists submit proposals for review by ethics committees that decide whether the projects have valid scientific goals and whether the methods are ethical and humane. Details vary, but generally approvals require that the number of animals handled and handling times are minimized, and that animals are treated humanely and with respect.
In the field, researchers record information about their animal encounters, including the number of animals that are injured, killed or euthanized, and provide this information for review. Misconduct can harm reputations and make it harder for scientists and their institutions to obtain future research permits and funding.
I have worked with many researchers, including some who have pioneered best handling practices for wild animals. These people have years of training and experience, and know how to handle and release animals properly to maximize their survival.
I have witnessed the making of many researcher-animal selfies – including photos with restrained animals during scientific study. In most cases the animal was only held for an extra fraction of a second while vigilant researchers simply glanced up and smiled for the camera already pointing in their direction.
But some incidents have been more intrusive. In one instance, researchers had tied a large shark to a boat with ropes across its tail and gills so that they could measure, biopsy and tag it. Then they kept it restrained for an extra 10 minutes while the scientists took turns hugging it for photos.
Although this may be an extreme case, a quick online search for images of “wildlife researchers” produces plenty of photos of scientist-selfies - with whales, birds, bats, fish, turtles, and other animals – including some of the world’s most endangered species.
Taking selfies with animals may seem trivial and even beneficial if the photos get viewers interested in science. But these images do not show the researcher’s expertise or training or explain how his or her scientific sampling protocols have been vetted and approved by animal ethics experts. Moreover, the photos do not reveal that many sampling procedures injure or kill some of the animals that are captured for study and that research proposals include acceptable numbers of casualties. The public only sees scientists with animals that appear to be thriving and producing valuable information, despite being captured and handled.
When biologists add extra seconds or minutes of restraint for taking selfies, they reinforce the perception that animals are robust enough to tolerate this treatment. Some members of the public may think that it is a safe and acceptable practice and try to emulate what they see.
This can be deadly for animals. In recent examples, tourists were recorded roughhousing a baby dolphin in Argentina, sharks in the Dominican Republic and Australia, and a swan in Macedonia – all for selfies. Many of these animals died.
Wildlife selfies also put people in danger. Last year a woman was gored while taking a selfie with a bison in Yellowstone National Park. The U.S. Forest Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Park Service have all issued warnings to the public that they can be hurt or killed attempting to take photos of themselves with wild animals. But when scientists post photos of themselves holding a live shark or kneeling next to a (sedated) bear, they undercut those warnings.
Leading by example
Researchers have many reasons to show their work with wildlife to the public. They can urge people to learn about their projects and current science issues, build support for conservation, and promote general science literacy. Images of prominent scientists such as Jane Goodall, Sylvia Earle, and Edward O. Wilson interacting gently with wildlife have undoubtedly helped to connect people with animals that were previously viewed as dangerous beasts. And amassing followers on social media can help scientists boost their social and professional status and attract collaborators and funding.
Scientists cannot prevent the public from trying to take selfies with wild animals, but we can think carefully about how our actions may contribute to the problem.
Instead of engaging in recreational activities under the auspices of research and sharing photos that flaunt our special access to wild animals, we should work to show the vulnerability of our animal subjects more clearly. Research institutions should review their animal handling regulations, remind scientists and students about proper animal handling practices, and celebrate those who follow best practices. Society, including our funders and colleagues, should also hold us to the same standards that we set out for the public.
The easiest way to show that researchers working with wild animals are following best practices is to avoid engaging in recreational activities with restrained animal subjects, and to be careful about sharing photos from the field that are not clearly related to sanctioned research activities. By taking these steps, biologists can lead by example and help guide the public to interact more responsibly with wildlife.