Throughout the world, wildlife is used as photo-props at a variety of establishments including affluent hotels and resorts, malls, wildlife parks/zoos, in markets or on the streets in tourist hot spots. Most human beings are very drawn to animals and the desire to interact with them and have physical contact is strong. However, just because we show other humans and our domestic pets affection by cuddling them, it does not mean this type of interaction is appropriate when it comes to wildlife. In fact having a cuddle and a photo taken with a wild animal can be extremely detrimental to the welfare of the individual, and the conservation of the species, for a variety of reasons.
Most people who pay to have their photo taken with a wild animal will be animal lovers. After all, why would you pay to sit next to and cuddle something you don’t like? Sadly however, that is exactly what these exploitative industries rely on; people like animals, and given the opportunity many people will pay money to get close to those animals without thinking about the negative impact on the animal in question.
Unfortunately there is no such thing as a harmless selfie with a wild animal. When it comes to photo prop animals we can’t just accept our selfie with them as a fun moment in time for us. We must think about how and why they’ve come to be in that industry, what their daily existence is like, and what lays in store for them as they grow older and are no longer able to be used as props.
How they came to be there:
In certain parts of the world many of the animals used as photo props are wild-caught. Usually they are caught as vulnerable infants so that they can be “trained” from an early age. As mammals are incredibly protective of their young, the mother is usually killed in order to gain access to the vulnerable offspring. In the case of incredibly social animals such as elephants many members of the herd may be killed as they attempt to protect the vulnerable members of their family. Depending on the species, the mother and other members of the family group may be sold for their body parts, meat, pelts etc. The trade in wildlife is unfathomable – the sheer volume of animals being taken from the wild to supply industries like the photo prop industry is alarming. Once captured, wildlife will often be transported in large quantities in unimaginably cramped and squalid conditions prior to being sold in market places. During, or shortly after transit, many animals die as a result of stress, disease, poor sanitation, poor handling and cramped conditions. For every animal who survives to make into the photo-prop industry we must consider how many more died along the way.
Several poached lorises confined together in a tiny cage
In other parts of the world, such as in the United States, animals such as big cats are routinely bred to become photo-props. These individuals, just like their wild-born counterparts, suffer immensely. Cubs are taken from their mothers at a very young age. This not only causes great stress to the female, who would normally care for her cub for up to two years, it also creates sick and stressed cubs. Most cubs used as photo props will show visible signs of illness and stress, such as missing patches of fur, poor body condition and severe diarrhoea. Although the USDA legislation states that cubs can only be displayed between 8-12 weeks of age many exhibitors will use cubs well before and after these ages to increase the amount of money that can be made from them.
TIger cub malls in the USA
Close interaction with any wildlife can pose a serious risk to human safety. To mitigate this many photo prop animals are subjected to cruel procedures such as “declawing”, having their jaws wired together or having their teeth cut off. Often these procedures will be performed with no anaesthetic, pain relief or antibiotics. This is all to ensure that humans can interact with minimized risk to their own personal safety. Many animals die from the shock or subsequent infection of having these procedures.
A slow loris having its teeth cut
Their daily existence:
Wild animals are often sedated to ensure that they remain docile and put up minimal resistance to being handled by hordes of tourists each day.
Photo-prop animals are usually situated in busy areas in order to maximise the profit made from passers-by. Therefore, many of these animals are exhibited within malls, market places or even outside busy bars and nightclubs. In addition to an already stressful environment, many different people handle the animals constantly each day, which is stressful in itself. Due to the constant stress many animals suffer from poor health, yet their symptoms are ignored so that they can be kept on exhibit to maximize profit. Given that it is often young animals that are used as photo props, many do not yet have a fully developed immune system. Hence they have a very compromised ability to fend off the parasites, illness and disease that they are invariably exposed to in such unnatural surroundings. Furthermore, many primate species are able to contract human illness such as colds and flus, and in many cases these fairly innocuous human illnesses can result in serious illness or death for other primates, particularly those who are stressed and immunosuppressed anyway.
Many animals used as photo props die prematurely as a result of the stress of handling, squalid conditions, malnutrition and illness that they are exposed to as a result of their interactions with humans. Those who manage to survive into adulthood are often deemed too dangerous to continue to use around tourists. At this age many animals will be abandoned and left to starve or they may be killed and sold for their parts, this practice is particularly common with animals such as tigers.
There is no such thing as a harmless “selfie” with a wild animal. Every photo contributes to a burgeoning industry that perpetuates animal suffering and hinders conservation.