Videos that seem harmless and fun to us may actually put animals in highly stressful situations. Experts believe anthropomorphism is to blame.
Trigger Warning: Animal Cruelty
Over the past few years, videos of a smiling stingray, a slow loris with its arms up, and dogs walking on their hind legs have all gone viral. These may appear to be harmless clips of animals performing cute, human-like behaviors. However, in reality, they are rather traumatic experiences for the animals being filmed. Unbeknownst to those who view these clips and perhaps even those filming, expecting animals to react as humans do when put in certain situations is not adorable and could actually hurt or scar them. The process of attributing human characteristics or behavior to a god, animal, or object, known as anthropomorphism, puts thousands of animals in harm's way every year, Brut America reports.
What kind of voice does your dog have? @ChicagoBooth Prof. Nick Epley, an expert on #anthropomorphism, weighs in on why we ascribe feelings and personalities to our pets in a @washingtonpost story this week. (#SundayReads via @SmiloTweets & @MauraJudkis) https://t.co/wBuOSpR2LX— The University of Chicago (@UChicago) August 22, 2021
For instance, earlier this year, a video of a stingray "laughing" as a fisherman "tickled" it went viral. In the clip, a stingray can be seen curling its mouth upwards as if to smile as the fisherman gently tickled its body. Because the fish reacted to the fisherman's actions as a human would, viewers believed it was enjoying the interaction. On the contrary, the situation would have been incredibly terrifying for the stingray. This is because the interaction would have made it harder for the animal to breathe.
ANTHROPOMORPHISM is ultimately harmful to animals in the wild.— Eye On The Antis (@EyeOnAntis) October 3, 2019
It is childish, which is good for children’s books, but NOT for wildlife population management. Let’s grow up!#hippo #hyena @LetAfricaLive @sci-Calgary#antropmorphism #letsgrowup
Aaron Shepherd, a master's student of electrical engineering at Clemson University and an intern at NASA, explained why the video perpetuates harm in a now-viral TikTok. "Now, I know it looks like this ray is laughing when this guy tickles it but that is a classic case of anthropomorphism," he states. "In reality, this is a very, very stressful situation for the ray. Think about it like this: This ray is supposed to be breathing water and now it is up in the air, and somebody is forcing it to open its mouth and let out all the water that it needs and instead replace that with air."
Repeat after me people :— Aaron Shepard (@spacecadetshep) June 16, 2021
"I will not touch ocean animals unnecessarily for social media clout"
Thank you... pic.twitter.com/wKsorJi983
In another, more problematic case, a video of a slow loris lifting its arms up as someone "tickled" it went viral. Slow lorises only lift their arms up when scared. This means that "tickling" a slow loris and forcing it to raise its arms is a trauma response—not one of enjoyment. Unfortunately, "cute" videos like this one have led to the illegal trade and unnatural domestication of the slow loris, a species listed on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Actor Peter Egan highlighted the danger of such videos in an effort to raise awareness about how anthropomorphism can harm animals like the slow loris.
Did you know that slow lorises are the ONLY venomous primate in the entire world? If a slow loris feels threatened, they will secrete venom from a gland under their armpit and then rub it onto their teeth!#slowloris #animalfacts #facts #wildlife #indonesia #animals pic.twitter.com/JFYcqvB8gf— International Animal Rescue (@IAR_updates) August 23, 2021
"The slow lorises are suffering terribly as a result of the pet trade fueled by these videos," he shares in a public service announcement. "Before a slow loris is sold as a pet, its teeth are removed without anesthetic. Lorises are smuggled in dark, overcrowded, airless containers, alongside the bodies of other lorises that have died." Therefore, before you share such clips, think about how you may perpetuate the harms of anthropomorphism yourself. Shepherd affirms, "All of these videos that we see online of animals doing cute things may look fun and harmless to us, but in reality, it may be a traumatic experience for the animal."