How Instagram’s animal welfare policy is changing your feed and the lives of animals

Instagram is full of colleagues, friends, and former classmates posting photos of themselves on vacation drinking fancy cocktails, swimming in blue water, watching over-saturated sunsets, and maybe, even exploiting animals.

Animal tourism has become a significant part of the travel industry, attracting a growing number of people every year.  If you ask a tourist, they probably would not say that animal abuse is high on their itinerary, but every year thousands of people engage in activities such as elephant rides, selfies with wild animals, and swimming with dolphins.  Many of these activities are motivated by the fact that people can document themselves interacting with these animals and post about it on social media, usually with an overwhelmingly positive response from their followers.

More than meets the eye
Behind many cute animal selfies could lie a story of mistreatment and neglect; activities that seem harmless or even endearing are actually quite harmful to many animals. Sloths appear to hug tourists as cameras flash; however, this interaction causes these slow mammals intense stress. Sloths would typically spend almost all of their time in trees, touching the ground about once a week. Some species move so slowly that they grow algae on their fur. Being taken from the wild, passed around by strangers, and forced to pose for pictures quickly degrades the health of these meek animals.

Swimming with dolphins and posting pictures kissing them is another popular tourist activity that has a dark backdrop. Dolphins are highly active animals that need spacious facilities that mimic living in the open ocean. These marine mammals are not meant to live in captivity and are often held in insufficient conditions that lead to sunburn, malnutrition, aggressive behavior towards tourists, loss of eyesight, and even psychosis. Not only is living in captivity detrimental to dolphins, but their aggressive behavior can also put unsuspecting tourists in danger. Having evolved over millions of years to swim in miles of open ocean, there is no enclosure big enough to properly and ethically house these active animals.

Elephant rides fall into a similar category of abuse. Through a process called the “pajaan” or “the crush,” both captive-bred and wild-caught elephant calves are starved and beaten into submission so that eventually tourists may ride them, take pictures, and share them on social media, inspiring their friends to want to do the same. Despite their size, the weight of humans and gear on their back can cause severe spinal problems. Mahouts, the elephant handlers, often use large hooks to force the elephant to perform certain behaviors for paying customers. After being in captivity for so long, many elephants can be seen swaying back and forth. Mahouts tell tourists that the animals are “dancing,” when in reality they are exhibiting signs of zoochosis, a mental illness caused by the abuse and inadequate conditions captive animals experience.

Animals like elephants, sloths and dolphins are meant to live in the wild where they can exist without human disruption …and sadly, for online validation. Unfortunately as long as the activities keep making money, people will keep participating. However, social media giants like Instagram are taking a stand on how these injustices occur on their platform.

How Instagram is responding
After receiving input from animal activist organizations like World Wildlife Fund, TRAFFIC, and World Animal Protection (WAP), Instagram announced on December 4th 2017 that they would be enacting a new policy to inform their users of how these activities mistreat animals. According to a report from WAP, there has been a 292% increase in animal selfies on Instagram since 2014, with 40% of these showing harmful behaviors toward animals. Whenever an Instagram user clicks on or searches for a hashtag like #slothselfie, they will see a pop up that informs the user that the hashtag is “associated with posts that encourage harmful behavior to animals or the environment”. This warning also includes an option to learn more to attempt to educate users on how this content and the activity it documents is damaging to animals. No matter the hashtag, users are directed to the same page that has basic information on why these posts harm animals, as well as links to other animal welfare organizations like WAP. However, content with these hashtags is still allowed.

Instagram has not released an official list of hashtags that will trigger this warning in an effort to prevent people from  maneuvering around them as easily, but says that they have worked with animal activist groups to make a list of hundreds of hashtags. These hashtags are in English, as well as the local languages of places like Indonesia and Thailand, where some of these activities are popular.

Instagram hopes that this warning will not only help to educate users, but also to disrupt the illegal wildlife trade that occurs on the platform. It has previously taken steps to prevent any content that depicts animal abuse or the sale of endangered animals and animal parts. A representative for the social media platform said in a public statement that the this hashtag initiative is just “phase one”, and that further steps will be taken to promote safety of animals, however these steps have yet to be specified.

Instagram is not the first platform to take a stand against animal abuse. In 2016 TripAdvisor announced that they would no longer be selling tickets to attractions that did not meet their animal welfare standards. Activities that do not meet these standards include bull fighting, captive hunts, and the riding of many animals.

However, many animal advocates feel that TripAdvisor does not go far enough because these activities are still available for review on the site.  Animal welfare organizations encourage tourists to research all activities involving animals before participating. Observing animals in their natural habitat is a good way to see the animals exhibit their natural behaviors while still preserving their well being instead of exploiting them for digital validation. There are multiple benefits to seeing animals in this scenario. Tourists can see them exhibiting their natural behaviors that have evolved over millions of years instead of mentally ill swaying disguised as dancing. In addition, many organizations that are responsible enough to showcase animals in this way will also provide tourists with information on how they can help to preserve these animals as well as give back to animal related causes. Tourists are encouraged to research any animal based attractions before they visit to make sure they are not causing harm to the very animals they are going to see.

Sources: Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary, The Dodo, Instagram, National Geographic, PETA, The Washington Post, World Animal Protection