By Vicki Croke
Surfing on whale sharks, riding a moose, and mugging with bears, smart phone users do some not-so-smart, dangerous, even cruel things.
Swimmers using a whale shark as a living surfboard. A boater leaping onto the back of a moose who is trying to swim across a lake. A 22-year-old with a friend who lures a mother manatee and her baby toward the dock so he can cannonball the gentle mammals.
These are among the latest examples of what appears to be a new trend, one in which selfie- and video-seeking humans play a dumb and dangerous game, harassing wild animals in order to gain glory on social media. (Though they sometimes gain a day in court with their own videos working as evidence against them.)
Manatees, whale sharks, bison, moose, tigers—it seems no species is safe.
In fact, taking selfies with wild bears became enough of a trend that the U.S. Forest Service’s Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit had to issue a warning against it last year. “We’ve had mobs of people that are actually rushing toward the bears trying to get a ‘selfie’ photo,” Lisa Herron, spokesperson for the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, told the Reno Gazette-Journal.
This week, Canada’s National Post reports that a man whose companions recorded and posted video of him leaping off their boat onto the back of a moose who was trying to swim across a lake may face animal-harassment charges in British Columbia.
Depending on where it takes place, and what kind of animal is involved, this kind of activity isn’t just mean, it’s illegal. And though getting that shot may be the motive for tormenting animals to begin with, those videos and pictures themselves, posted on YouTube and other social media, can alert the authorities (as well as motivated animal lovers) and provide clear photographic evidence of the crime.
Take the case of that manatee mother and baby. Manatees are considered endangered and have special protections as marine mammals. The two 22-year-olds, Taylor Blake Martin and Seth Andrew Stephenson, who harassed them were caught by the US Fish and Wildlife Service after they posted the video of their act. They were eventually ordered to serve 175 hours of community service and pay significant fines.
According to the New Times Broward Palm Beach in June of 2014:
"Both the FWC and U.S. Fish and Wildlife reviewed the video soon after it was posted online.
"In March of this year, the two men pleaded guilty to taking or harassing an endangered species.
"On Wednesday, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Orlando said the man who jumped into the animals — Martin — was ordered to pay a $3,000 fine. Stephenson, meanwhile, was ordered to pay $2,000.
"Manatees are protected under the Endangered Species Act, which is a second-degree misdemeanor that usually carries penalties of up to $500 or six months in jail."
The question after viewing so many of these kinds of videos and still photos is: Has the smart phone culture spurred an increase in wildlife harassment, or is it just that all those uploaded videos are making us aware of a problem that’s been around far longer than this latest technology?
Nicole Paquette, vice president of wildlife protection for the Humane Society of the United States, doesn’t think we’ll be able to answer that definitively. But she believes there may be a couple of factors contributing to the current situation.
“Certainly due to social media you see it a lot more often,” she says. And she suspects a cultural shift has taken place because of animal-centered reality shows. “We’ve certainly been seeing so many more reality TV shows that have close encounters with dangerous wild animals. You know you see them wrestling alligators, you see them interacting with some of our native carnivores. And this does several things. One, it sends the wrong message that it is OK to do that. But it’s also really detrimental to the animals because in the event that something does happen to that individual, the likely scenario is it ends badly for everybody, including the wild animal.”
It’s possible that reality shows give people the sense that it’s acceptable to wrestle or ride wild animals, and their smart phones coupled with social media give them the means to easily create and distribute their footage.
And this problem is not just affecting animals in the wild, but in zoos and other captive settings too. Tony Vecchio, the executive director of the Jacksonville Zoo in Florida says this has been a hot topic of discussion among zoo directors. There was the video of teens in Toronto hopping a barrier to the polar bear exhibit and reaching through chain-link fencing to touch a young bear.
And just weeks ago, a man in India was arrested for entering a restricted area at the Nehru Zoological Park in order to tease and take video of himself with a jaguar, which he posted onto his Facebook page.
Vecchio recalls his staff in Oregon catching three men as they attempted to sneak into the grizzly exhibit to get a shot of themselves with the powerful bears.
Rule breaking among zoogoers is nothing new, Vecchio says, but he thinks the motive and pay-off behind attempts to get inside exhibits has changed. Now it’s not so much a misguided love of animals as it is the desire for social media immortality.
“We’ve always seen people that have had a tendency to break the rules,” Vecchio says, “but usually it used to be because they wanted to feed the animals or they thought the animals were really tame and they wanted to pet them. This is a whole new phenomenon where they want to be near the animals more for themselves than for the sake of the animals. And it’s all about getting themselves a recorded image that they can post online.”
Still, does all this mean that harassment in general is increasing?With respect to manatees it may be. Under the headline “Manatee Harassment Is On The Rise At Florida Springs, Environmentalists Say,” the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting writes that the number of dive shops advertising “swim with the manatees” experiences is increasing. More....