Viral animals: an ephemeral and dangerous fame

Cats may own the internet, but other animals are buying shares.

Axolotls, ball pythons, bearded dragons, black widow spiders, and capybaras are some of the creatures that have already managed to garner billions of views on TikTok.

Partly because they are pretty, or half pretty. But experts say it also has to do with the medium itself.

“People can relate to these videos because they add human captions to the animals,” writes Julia Lee Cunningham, an associate professor at the University of Michigan in the United States, in an email. National Geographic.

These videos inspire interest in wildlife. But they can also have hidden ill effects as more and more people turn to exotic animals as pets.

Why do these animals win us over and how does all this adulation affect their well-being? This is what you need to know.

(Related: Don’t be fooled by social networks: wild animals make terrible pets)

Axolotls are small amphibians native to central Mexico, where they are in serious danger of extinction due to pollution, habitat loss, and invasive species. Only between 50 and 1000 specimens remain in their natural habitat.

But these animals have become increasingly popular as pets, garnering at least 3.1 billion views on TikTok.

It probably has something to do with their big heads and big eyes, which remind us of human babies and activate our drive to care, says Oriana Aragón, a social psychologist at the University of Cincinnati in the United States.

“Beauty greatly influences human behavior,” says Aragon. Thanks to our evolutionary wiring, the sight of something cute triggers a surge of emotion in us, sometimes even making us want to squeeze or squish it, a response that Aragon and her team at Yale University researched in 2015.

The appearance of axolotls in popular video games (including Fortnite, Roblox, and Minecraft) may also be behind their increased demand as pets. And that can be dangerous if people don’t know how to care for animals.

New Zealand animal shelters took in thousands of axolotls in 2022 after gullible buyers accidentally acquired breeding pairs that soon produced hundreds of eggs. One of the owners of the rescued animals then speculated to Guardian with the possibility that this phenomenon was related to Minecraft.

(Related: The endangered Mexico City axolotl has found fame: will it be enough to save it?)

In our early human history, “we had to pay attention to snakes to stay alive,” says Molly DePrekel, a psychologist and associate professor at the Institute for Human-Animal Connection at the University of Denver.

Seeing a snake activates the “primary brain,” where the fight-or-flight response lives.

That instant response and safe distance may partly explain the 2.3 billion TikTok views of ball pythons, a non-venomous snake with gorgeous skin patterns that also seems to be beloved by the public.

A study published in 2022 in the journal Anthrozoans found that reptile owners view their pets with the same affection as other pet owners, as well as “admiration and fascination.”

“We have a desire to be loved or to give love,” says Leanne Nieforth, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Arizona College of Veterinary Medicine. It’s a need we often see “embodied in our relationships with pets.”

They are also refreshingly calm.

“There’s something very calming and relaxing about calm animals,” says Catherine Salmon, a social psychologist at the University of Redlands and director of its Human-Animal Studies program. “It’s not like having a Chihuahua.”

Although its observation can be reassuring, snakes have specific needs: from an appropriate habitat to the right temperature and humidity for their species. A 2022 study on the well-being of snakes as pets revealed that 54.7% lived in enclosures where they could not fully stretch out and 48.1% of owners did not measure the humidity of the space.

Some exotics are “more work than people realize,” says Salmon. Those who do not return them to the wild leave them free, often to die or, if the environment is right, become invaders.

(Related: Many exotic pets suffer or die during transport, and beyond.)

These native Australian lizards have 2.2 billion views on TikTok and are the most popular reptile pet. Bearded dragons are agile, with pointed faces and, as their name suggests, a barbed area under their chins that they swell up and darken if threatened…or to impress females.

Its look is certainly prehistoric, and Aragón believes that the juxtaposition of the wild and the domestic is a great draw for the public.

In videos, bearded dragons look wild, but they are often pampered by a human. Feeding a dog is not as attractive as feeding a dragon.

The medium also makes the content more interesting.

“It’s personal,” he says, and it comes right to you on the phone. “You can interact with others about it.”

Combined with the fact that we only see slices of life on social media, this can make keeping an exotic animal as a pet seem easier than it is. The UC Davis College of Veterinary Medicine describes bearded dragons as wonderful pets, but also lists a number of steps to ensure their well-being at home: from ultraviolet B lighting to calcium supplementation.

(Related: Alligators are terrible pets: “It’s like having a dinosaur”)

Female black widow spiders have a classic gothic charisma, with their long legs and round, deep-black bodies with a bright red hourglass on their abdomens. Its 6.5 billion views on TikTok, however, may have to do with the fact that it is the most venomous spider in North America.

Salmon points out that the danger is part of its appeal.

When people aren’t sure, “they either seek more information or run from information,” says Nieforth. TikTok makes it safe to learn something scary.”

Part of the mystique of the black widow is that it is unlikely to be seen. During the day they like to hide in dark and secluded places.

However, if kept as pets, black widow spiders need proper housing and care must be taken not to handle them with bare hands, says Catherine Scott, a postdoctoral researcher at the Lyman Museum of Entomology at McGill University in Montreal. They only bite in self-defense, but if a bite occurs, medical consultation is advised.

“The trade in wild animals as pets always raises ethical issues,” says Scott. But in the case of spiders there is a silver lining: “It allows more people to get a closer look at these beautiful and fascinating animals.”

(Related: How do male widow spiders avoid being eaten after mating?)

These South American natives are the world’s largest rodent and have 6.8 billion views on TikTok. They’ve even inspired a Russian musician on the social media platform to create one of the catchiest creature-centric tunes since Baby Shark (the first video to hit 10 billion views on Youtube).

Capybaras aren’t baby-faced, but “they look vulnerable, rounded,” says Aragon, which, again, could respond to our impulse to care for them.

They also appeal to our varied nature. Just as we always buy new Oreo cookie flavors, exotic animals tap into our love of novelty.

The desire to keep capybaras as pets may have to do with our desire for social status, Salmon says, the “look at me” factor of having something weird.

To safeguard the welfare of exotic animals, Nieforth says, it helps to first consider four of the five most critical areas for animal welfare: making sure they have what their species needs in terms of food, housing, health care and behaviour.

“Can you go beyond keeping the animal alive?” Nieforth asks. “Can you give a herd animal, a herd?”

Once those four domains are covered, you also need to make sure that they are actually resulting in the fifth domain of animal welfare for your pet: a good state of mind. After all, capybaras and other animals may give you endless enjoyment while browsing social media, but they, like us, deserve a healthy life, on and off camera.

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