Dying For The Perfect Photo: The Selfies With Animals Epidemic

In recent years, selfies have become a global phenomenon. Worse, they’ve become a leading cause of accidental death for people all around the world. By some estimates (arguable, but still) the taking of selfies now causes more deaths per year than shark attacks. As disturbing as this is, it thus far has remained a sort of self-inflicted death sentence, an encapsulated phenomenon affecting only the humans taking the selfies.

That is changing.

Just in the last few weeks, a rare adolescent La Plata dolphin was killed when it became disoriented and beached itself. Instead of taking the animal back out into the surf and releasing it, hundreds of people began holding it aloft, and passing it around, all vying to take selfies with it. The dolphin quickly succumbed to shock and dehydration and died. After its death, the body was discarded on the beach, and–after a few more selfies with the corpse–it was left to rot. No charges have been filed in this case.

A man in Florida pulled a small bull shark out of the ocean, dragging it up onto the beach by its tail and then posing with it while onlookers eagerly snapped photos. Though the man eventually returned the shark to water, it reportedly sank out of sight without beginning to swim on its own, and it’s not known whether the shark managed to survive, or died of its injuries.

In China, visitors at a wildlife park–after being explicitly told to leave the birds within alone–not only grabbed several peacocks off the ground, but then pinned them against their chests while they took multiple selfies with the birds. Unlike humans, birds do not have a diaphragm, and they must rely on the expansion and compression of their chest cavities in order to move air in and out of their bodies. Pinioned tightly as they were, the peacocks were literally suffocated nearly to the point of death. What lack of oxygen began, shock finished, in the case of two birds. Both died shortly after the incident.

Now, a swan in Macedonia has become the latest victim of the ‘selfies with animals’ craze that’s sweeping the internet. Acclimated to the appearance of tourists, the swan did not shy away when a Bulgarian woman approached. Had the swan fled, it might still be alive. Instead, it allowed the woman to get close to it. She then grabbed the bird by one wing, and dragged it thrashing up onto the embankment. It’s likely that the swan’s wing was injured by the rough handling, but it was shock that killed it. Once the tourist got her selfie, she abandoned the bird on the beach where it quickly died.

These are isolated incidents which have made Internet news forums and have been highly publicized. Still consistently overlooked in the game of animal selfies, is the million dollar industry of cub petting, and cub selfies, which relies both on the continued breeding of captive big cats, and the public’s belief that it is their right to take selfies with these animals, and their right to exploit them “just this once” in order to create a memory for themselves.

This widespread entitlement that the public at large embraces, is something fueled, at least in part, to our consumption-based society. Terms like “white privilege” and “male privilege” are commonplace within today’s discussions, but I’m going to add a couple more to the roster. “Human Privilege” and “First World Privilege”.

“Human privilege” can be applied to situations like those above, where anyone, no matter their monetary status perceives themselves has having the right to impose upon the animals they encounter in order to satisfy their own interests. We don’t go around picking up other peoples’ babies or children and taking pictures of ourselves holding them simply because they’re cute, and we want a photograph with them. Likewise, we don’t walk up to strangers and hug them while taking photographs of the interaction. People who jump into the path of celebrities only to snap photographs are considered to be assholes, even during their few moments of fame. But humans think nothing of snatching animals up and forcing them to participate in interactions which are then documented in a photo or selfie, and subsequently splashed across the internet. Often, the more unlikely the animal companion, or the more dangerous the situation, the more popular the resulting selfie becomes.

“First world Privilege” is applicable to any situation in which someone is monetarily able to provide themselves with disposable goods, but for my purposes, I’m applying it specifically to those who pay to hold, pet, and take selfies with captive wild animals which have been bred specifically for that purpose. Pseudo sanctuaries (which are not GFAS accredited sanctuaries) like Black Jaguar White Tiger, T.I.G.E.R.S., Dade City Wild Things, Virginia’s beleaguered Natural Bridge Zoo, the Zoological Wildlife Conservation Center, and many other establishments, exist on the dollars pulled in by charging the public to hold and take selfies with their animals. The exploitation of their animals for use in public photos and selfies is not a footnote within the operations of the aforementioned pseudo sanctuaries, it is the very foundation on which the businesses were built, and on which they continue to stand. Egregious institutes such as the Tiger Temple, exist solely to cater to the “first world privilege” of those who pay to use their services while vacationing. If monetarily possessed people refused to pay to be allowed to hold and take photographs with captive wild animals, the consumption would end, and the practice would as well. After all, such fads as paying for seances has largely died out. Now, if someone pays for the services of a psychic, the mainstream public sees it as a waste of money. But once, it was considered to be *the* thing to do.

So what can you do to help end this “selfie with animals” epidemic? Well, for one, check out anti-animal selfie movements, like Big Cat Rescue’s Tiger Selfie and educate yourself. Then, stop sharing wild animal selfies and photos on Facebook, and other social media sites.

Black Jaguar White Tiger is the leading power behind the public’s obsession with sharing, and celebrating, photographs, videos and selfies of celebrity guests holding and coddling captive wild animals. Though closed to the public (you must be invited in, and/or donate $1,000 or more a month to be allowed onto te property) BJWT uses its 5 million+ followers on Instagram to promote activities like holding, playing with and keeping as pets, captive wild animals, big cats in particular. Eduard Serio defends himself, and his own actions insisting that his animals are not exploited and that he’s raising awareness about the plight of animals everywhere, and always hashtags the photos with #notpets despite that he’s blatantly treating the animals just like pets. The photos he promotes are those wherein he, or his many celebrity guests, are holding and playing with the animals kept on his property. These photos are subsequently liked, shared, and re-shared thousands and thousands of times. BJWT is beloved by millions, as I’ve said, and despite that the BJWT website recently, and without explanation, removed the ‘visit for two’ benefit to donating $1,000 or more a month (suspiciously after a number of articles publicly pointed out the fact that the chance to play with the animals was being used to garner donations) those millions of followers remain devoted to the pseudo sanctuary and its celebrity visitors.

Yes, the fans love BJWT. Problem is, only a few people ever get to go to the secretly guarded BJWT facility and “share Eddie’s special bond” with his pets–excuse me, “rescued” animals. So what’s an average Joe to do? Visit a more accessible “sanctuary” like T.I.G.E.R.S. or Natural Bridge Zoo(neither of which are GFAS accredited) where for what passes for today’s pocket change will get you some cuddle time with captive big cats who have been bred just so people like you can pay to get cuddle time with them!

Or, if you’re more into the offhand encounters, you can head out into the countryside and start randomly grabbing and manhandling whatever sort of animal you come across. It bears pointing out that not *every* selfie in which and animal has been forced to participate actually looks like the animal has been forced, or is suffering. Some animals aren’t capable of defending themselves against unwanted attention. Sloths, and even animals like the Northern opossums, or common turtles are more inclined to simply go limp or freeze when trapped by a human. You can literally walk through a South American jungle and pluck sloths from the trees (if you can reach them) and the sloths won’t do anything to you. But that doesn’t mean you have the right to touch a sloth.

So the next time an oh-so-cute photo of someone coddling or hamming with a wild animal pops up in your news feed, take a moment to look at it closely before simply liking and sharing it. All of those likes and shares promote the activities shown in the photographs and videos so it’s vital to understand what you’re promoting.

Does the picture portray a celebrity at a “sanctuary” that is not GFAS accredited, and allows direct interaction between the public and its animals? Does it have a caption that somehow links the activities of holding or playing with the animals to conservation or awareness? Are the animals in the photo wild, or not the sort of animals you would ever expect to see in human hands? If the answer to any of these is “Yes” then more than likely the animals in the photographs are being exploited.

Only in cases wherein medical attention, or nutrition is being administered by accredited professionals is it acceptable to hold or manipulate a wild, or captive wild animal.

As tempting as it might be to scoop up a baby animal (or adorable adult, or awesome looking animal) for “just one photo” you have to understand that your actions will have an impact on that animal, and that animals do not perceive such things the way a human might. For them, being held against their will is emotionally, mentally, and sometimes physically, damaging.

And in some cases while people rationalize their actions by looking at it from the standpoint of “it’s just one photo” for the animals–depending on their situation–it might well be their hundredth, or thousandth photo. In cub petting situations, while you get a few minutes (maybe more, depending on what you pay) with a big cat cub, that cub often has to spend “a few minutes” with hundreds of guests each day. The same goes for animals such as the peacock killed by tourists in China, and the swan killed by tourists in Macedonia. Those animals had to deal with hundreds, or thousands of tourists passing through where they lived on a daily basis. And, chances are, they probably had to deal with people chasing, catching, or trying to catch them on a daily basis. We’ll never know if theses incidents were the first time the animals had been captured for photographs, or the hundredth time, because activities like this aren’t monitored, or noted.

In fact, the only attention and exposure this kind of abuse gets is after an animal is killed in the process.

So I implore you, don’t be part of the epidemic of animal selfies. Do your research and be part of the cure.

Author: Artemis Grey

23 thoughts on “Dying For The Perfect Photo: The Selfies With Animals Epidemic

  1. Great article. We’re so narcissistic that it’s always “what’s in it for me”. The capacity to put yourself in the place of the animal and to look through their eyes. To be conscious enough to see what effect you have on those around you and to stop this horrific trend. I saw a woman with her phone on a self stick poking it at a rescued lion – she was told that she was terrifying the animal because he had come from a circus, the stick looking like something he’d experienced before. She was told several times and didn’t change her behaviour at all…more interested in the pic and completely shut down to instruction, absolutely nobody home, focused on her bloody pic.
    Have we become so self absorbed, so disconnected, that most simply don’t give a rats?


  2. It’s very difficult to take this article seriously when it opens with the selfie-shark point. Selfies are absolutely not a leading cause of death anywhere, let alone worldwide. Not even for animals, let alone people. You even mentioned how questionable that selfie-shark statistic is, and you went with it anyways.

    People are causing animal deaths by roughly handling animals for taking pictures. That’s a fact. But the solution is to have people take pictures of animals in their natural habitat (ideally without flash). A simple ‘look but don’t touch’ rule would suffice.


    1. Hello Nick,

      I’m sorry that you’re having trouble taking this article seriously simply because of one sentence. There was, however, an error in the sentence, as it should have read ‘leading cause of accidental death’. I have added the left-out ‘accidental’ now. That was a editorial error on my part. Here is where I got the data I used in constructing that opening. As to the ‘arguable’ statistic of more people being killed while taking selfies than by shark attacks, I was simply being honest about the fact that it was ‘arguable’ because no established study or perimeter for study has been done on the matter, and the statistics themselves will change annually. However, here are several links, including one to Snopes which support the fact that in certain years there have, indeed, been more deaths caused by selfies than there have been caused by shark attacks

      Yes, you are correct, people cause the deaths of animals by roughly handling animals for the purpose of taking pictures. I clearly said as much in the article, thank you for reiterating it. And yes, ideally the solution would be for people to take pictures of animals in their natural habitats following a ‘look but don’t touch’ rule. The ICARUS team whole-heartedly agrees with you. It’s one reason that we support hands off conservation, and take a firm stance against the pseudo sanctuaries listed in the article which make money and support themselves by allowing the public to handle–and take photographs with–their animals.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. A very open, sharp and holding more truth than any article seen thus far into the world of “selfies with animals (including pets)”. It is worth noting that by falling into this false premise of “selfie” you are acting out and placing yourself into the world of narcissism. It was a sign of the overindulgence within our society, an over-introspection, narcissism. It is not just the person(s) but also the culture we live in that is narcissistic by its very behaviour. Preoccupied with your vanity, more introspective and body-conscious are the people of today. There is an eagerness to pose and show yourself, a vanity, then there is the making money from it and creating a falsehood. Many will disagree with what I am saying or due to the lack of understanding and knowledge, they will say it is nonsense. Sadly though, by the very blindfold the person(s) wear the delude themselves and prefer to live in their fantasy as it cloaks them with the safeness they want and seek.


  3. Another Big Cat Rescue stooge. Three international examples of wild animal ‘selfies’, one being no different from any person who has ever gone fishing (an activity I happen to detest) do not constitute an ‘animal selfie epidemic’. What a useless opening, probably to milk the viral story about that rare dolphin that probably would have died anyway.


    1. Hello Melissa,

      I’m not sure exactly what threshold you’ve established for determining what constitutes a ‘stooge’ of any particular organization. I should hope a single link to a very beneficial site which aids animals is not your basis for ‘stoogehood’ as that denotes less than objective views. I have no personal attachment to, or professional association with, Big Cat Rescue, other than the fact that they support hands off conservation, which is something the ICARUS group also supports.

      I listed three international wild animal selfie incidents that were highly publicized not to ‘milk the viral story’ but because they were, well, highly publicized, and people would easily be able to reference them.

      The La Plata dolphin is an endangered or ‘vulnerable’ species, which lives both in the ocean and in salt water estuaries, though they are also capable of traveling up freshwater rivers. As the La Plata dolphin in this story was an adolescent, it could quite easily have become separated from its mother and disoriented as they tried to move from the ocean into an estuary. Here is a video that clearly shows someone carrying it from the water, while it flips its tail and open and closes its mouth. The truth is that you cannot say with any probability that the dolphin ‘would have died anyway’. I’m also unclear as to just what sort of fishing you’ve been privy to, as no fishing I’ve witnessed (and I don’t fish, myself) involved dragging fish out of the water, allowing them to suffocate and then throwing them back. There’s also the matter of the physiological differences between a fish, which might be removed from the water, then returned without harm, and many shark species which cannot simply ‘start breathing’ again once in the water. In many shark species unless water is actively passing through their gills, sharks cannot get oxygen from it. Simply being in the water is not enough for many sharks. This is why shark biologists have special rigs which constantly pump water through the shark’s gills while measurements are being taken. And even sharks which are capable of pumping water through their gills while not swimming are susceptible to suffocation once removed from the water.

      As to your assertion that three international examples to not ‘constitute an epidemic’ you seem to have overlooked the fact that I also included selfies with captive wild animals that are made possible by the pseudo sanctuaries I listed. Selfies with animals–both wild, and captive wild–are a spreading epidemic. Cub petting schemes–which always, or virtually always involve photo options–feed the canned hunting industry They also support the continued breeding of captive wild animals. The consumption and exploitation of captive wild animals, big cats in particular is an epidemic, one which is fueled constantly and consistently by venues which capitalize on taking photographs of paying customers while they hold wild animals. To insist that there is no ‘animal selfie epidemic’ in the face of such overwhelming statistics is to refuse to acknowledge the truth.


      1. Thomas,
        Claiming that the exploitation of big cats by captive breeding and public handling is going to help save wild big cats is like claiming that the production of child pornography is going to save children who are being trafficked in the sex industry.
        In both cases you’re feeding an addiction and making money, not helping to keep kids safe in their homes or big cats safe in the wild.


      2. Elizabeth

        ” no fishing I’ve witnessed (and I don’t fish, myself) involved dragging fish out of the water, allowing them to suffocate and then throwing them back. There’s also the matter of the physiological differences between a fish, which might be removed from the water, then returned without harm, and many shark species which cannot simply ‘start breathing’ again once in the water. ”

        I was so with you until you mentioned fish. You’ve not witnessed bycatch, where unwanted aquatic organisms are dragged on board, inspected and then thrown back dead or dying into the water? The waste of life from recreational and industrial fishing is obscene. Just about all fishing involves pain and fear to the fish, which equals cruelty. We now know that fish can feel pain, do experience fear, are sentient, are intelligent, have social bonds and so on. Whether it is a bull shark or a sardine, these animals need to get oxygen from water in order to survive. There are some differences in how they do it, but they ALL rely on water for comfort and survival. Is it for you to say that they are returned to the water “without harm” when so few studies exist on their survivability? We now know from studies on bill fish that even a moment out of the water effects their survivability. There was a video from Australia doing the rounds of a boy ‘assisting’ with the birth of stingray pups. It’s easy to see the boy as being altruistic (which unfortunately is what many people WANT to see) but the reality is that he caused undue suffering and eventual death to the female ray and pups for his time in the spot light on social media. Snagging an animal with a sharp piece of metal through tender areas such as the mouth and then dragging them out of the water which they need to survive is not humane for any fish. Holding them up for a selfie as they suffocate, kissing them and then throwing them back overboard is not a kind act. It is selfish.

        The rest of your article is great, and I wish more journalists were covering this narcissistic phenomenon for what it is. Thanks for saying what so many of us involved with animals have been increasingly horrified by. Animals like loris are literally going extinct so that street vendors can sell photos of people with them. It is a very sad state of affairs.


      3. Hi Melissa,

        You mentioned fishing, you did not specify what kind of fishing. Line fishing does not cause ‘bycatch’ which I am quite familiar with. I am not defending any form of fishing, simply by pointing out that some species of fish are more capable of surviving out of water for longer than others, and that many can be returned to the water safely. I never said, however, that any form of fishing was humane, I made no comment on that at all. I would remind you, gently, that you are the one who brushed aside my referenced article about the shark being dragged on shore in regard to selfie cruelty because it was ‘no different from any person who has ever gone fishing’. I wrote the article considering the fishing/dragging creatures up onto the beach as being every bit as inhumane and deadly as anything other wild animals selfie.

        I am glad that you enjoyed the rest of the article, and I agree completely with you on the sad state of affairs and general ignorance of the public as to the plight of such delicate and vulnerable creatures as slow lorises. The ignorance is unfathomable and it’s actually continuing to grow at the hands of groups like Black Jaguar White Tiger, which glorify those hands-on holding and playing experiences.


  4. Hard to take you seriously when your message of “don’t share a picture of an animal selfie” is headed by…. A picture of a man kissing a lion. I guess it was “just this once”

    People remember what they see more than what they read – so they see an animal selfie but read about not taking one – the impression in the end could be “good lion picture” rather that animal selfies are bad.


    1. Sharon, you misunderstand the purpose of that image. The feature image is designed to draw attention to the article, and is presented in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, just as our articles which focus on Black Jaguar White Tiger’s claims of being a ‘sanctuary’ that doesn’t exploit animals often sport photographs of its founder, Eduardo Serio rolling around in his bed with big cat cubs, or otherwise exploiting them through social media.

      There is a narrow path between drawing people in to read an article, and then presenting information, and instantly repelling them with ‘just another article about how you shouldn’t touch animals’. It’s important to draw in the very people who might enjoy photos of people touching animals, as we can then hopefully educate them, whereas if we use a featured image that does not actually embrace the very thing we’re trying to counter, the people who support that subject will likely keep scrolling as they aren’t interested in learning any different.


  5. I’m struggling to understand why people have a problem with this article. We all know that there are many animal welfare issues, both wild and captive, caused by humans. But this is a problem, and, like all other animal welfare issues, it needs to be discussed.

    Liked by 1 person

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