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Bad Nature: The Internet Sucks for Animals


Ted Williams

So there’s this smart, heroic squirrel in a park whose baby has just been mauled by a cat. She finds a man and “begs him for help.” At first the man thinks the squirrel is “asking for food.” But after a while it “becomes obvious” to the man that the squirrel is seeking human assistance.

At this point the squirrel takes time from her rescue mission to indeed ask for food. Her request is granted.

“The squirrel seemed to be an extremely smart animal who clearly couldn’t talk, but she understood everything.”

After her snack the squirrel leads the man to her baby. The man scares away the cat and calls Animal Rescue which “comes right away and takes both squirrels to a different, safer part of the park.”

This is all reported in a popular YouTube video in which the mother squirrel changes species three times.

Bogus wildlife reports are wildly popular on social media. In almost all cases the fiction is intended to promote appreciation and conservation of the species. I would say it’s having the opposite effect.

Trading on a Lost Eden

Fake videos on social media are just the most recent iteration of sentimentalized nature. In reality, we debase wildlife by assigning human values to it. More importantly, warm, fuzzy - and fictitious — accounts of wild animals acting like a cartoon character distract public attention from the grim realities: since prehistory humans have killed off so many species of mammals that it would take 3 million to 7 million years of evolution for them to evolve an equivalent amount of diversity.

What are we doing about it? Not a whole hell of a lot. Extinction is a more difficult problem than climate change and we can't even grapple with that. The sources of greenhouses gases are fairly distinct, and with sufficient incentive and political will, emissions can be reduced, but because the causes of extinction are so hydra-headed - a suburban subdivision here, a lithium mine there - it's a battle with almost infinite fronts. So why should we expect the world to stop extinction? Well, because extinction and climate change have synergistic effects - and they don't look good. At all.

We could, at least, stop making it worse. Fluffy animal memes are doing to the public's understanding of the crisis of the natural world what the same kind of fake stuff has done to politics. A recent article in Vox/Recode reported on a study by biologists and ecologists who believe social media is changing our collective behavior as a species, and on a day-to-day basis, poses a threat to nature by spreading disinformation about environmental issues at warp speed. It's not just that people don't learn the facts: disinformation often buttresses the forces that are destabilizing the environment.

In a paper published by the National Academy of Sciences they wrote:

Neither the evolutionary nor the technological changes to our social systems have come about with the express purpose of promoting global sustainability or quality of life. Recent and emerging technologies such as online social media are no exception—both the structure of our social networks and the patterns of information flow through them are directed by engineering decisions made to maximize profitability. These changes are drastic, opaque, effectively unregulated, and massive in scale.

Maximizing profitability, historically, comes at the expense of nature. There are anti-environmental memes galore, but I would argue that gushy videos targeted to animal lovers do more harm by distracting potential allies from the real issues. The endorphin rush we get from fictionalized perky squirrels, friendly lions, and loving elephants provides false comfort.

I'm not arguing against the power of that rush. If we didn't still have a primal connection to other species, we wouldn't be human. That's why photographs of swans and dolphins returning to the canals of Venice during the pandemic went viral. Nostalgia for a long ago purity are among our most deeply held myths. As death drew closer, did we suddenly long for a long ago Eden?

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Remember this grainy image?

But dreams of Eden are just that. In the real Venice, the water isn’t clear, and the swans never left. The dolphins were filmed hundreds of miles away in the Mediterranean Sea.

Neither the swans nor the dolphins represent a real environmental issue. In Venice, the threat is climate change, which is causing sea level rise. But the notion that something beautiful could emerge, or re-emerge, from a terrifying plague was comforting. It was if the dead could come back to us, distant members of our family reunited. The power of this dream can be found in a single tweet about the swans that got 1 million likes.

Nostalgia has always been hard-wired to our notions of the environment in the U.S., and it’s true that the world was a wilder, more beautiful place before the industrial revolution. But, as the scientific panel pointed out, once nostalgia hits the Internet, it's weaponized. And it's commodified.

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Take this caption tacked onto the photo of elephants from Our Blue Planet, an alleged conservation group that mainly seems to be a website with recycled memes: “This is what an elephant herd is supposed to look like -- Tsavo, Kenya in the 1950s.”

Actually, the photo shows thin, malnourished elephants on mangled habitat denuded of vegetation-- precisely what a healthy elephant herd should not look like. If you see - really see - the photo, you’d understand that the habitat keeping the animals alive has been beat to crap. In the 1960s, as many as 60,000 elephants died in Tsavo National Park because their numbers had risen, and a drought hammered the vegetation they fed on - and Tsavo, like our national parks here in the U.S. - was too small to accommodate the great herds that once roamed East Africa.

As one exposé reports: “The image, almost always attributed to Tsavo, with varying dates attached, is filled with elephants moving from left to right, seemingly hundreds of them. Although the photo has existed for decades, it resurfaces periodically, often posted on ‘environmental’ or ‘nature’ styled Facebook pages with a caption referring to the past glory of elephant herds, where it then is shared often tens of thousands of times.”

Our Blue Planet has 461,525 Facebook followers. And Our Blue Planet is happy to accept your contributions.

The Facts

We are in the midst of Earth’s sixth great extinction, resulting not from asteroids, glaciers or volcanoes, but from habitat destruction caused by humans who may value wildlife but rarely understand it or its needs.

Species are going extinct faster than they’re being discovered, as many as 30,000 a year. Three tiger subspecies have been lost since 1960; six others are endangered. All great apes and half of all primates face extinction. The Center for Biological Diversity reports that 12 percent of mammals, 12 percent of birds, 31 percent of reptiles, 30 percent of amphibians, and 37 percent of fish are threatened.

Climate change is speeding the rate of extinction; the complex synergy that amplifies both of them is mind-boggling. Entire ecosystems unravel before our eyes. Just one example: Warming seawater is acidifying oceans. As ice melts around both poles walruses, polar bears, seals and penguins starve. The National Snow and Ice Data Center reports that since 1979, Arctic sea ice has declined by at least 30 percent.

It is a holocaust. Yet social media gives us Disney movies. Bogus, feel-good memes create unrealistic expectations that lead to disappointment. Too often, we reject genuine animals and their real-world behavior. As we lose the intimacy of day-to-day contact with wild animals that once made human life a rich and connected experience, we unthinkingly accept its lesser fictional counterpart. The Disney Channel is the drug.

Even some of our institutions seem to trade in bogus science. A week does not pass in which I don’t see a meme based on the Cary Institute’s claim that opossums are our “best defense against Lyme disease” because they eat deer ticks.

The institute appears to be on retainer from anti-hunting groups in an absurd effort to implicate all hosts in the tick-borne disease cycle and leave deer out of the equation. If superabundant opossums are going to save us from tick-borne diseases, how is it that cases have grown exponentially since the 1970s?

Connecticut is the national epicenter of deer-tick populations and Lyme Disease. In fact, Lyme, Connecticut was where Lyme Disease was discovered in 1975 (hence the disease’s name). Researchers at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station tell me that there is not a shred of evidence that supports the Cary Institute’s claim that opossums influence the abundance of ticks or the incidence of Lyme disease.

The public is capable of understanding that opossums eat ticks, even if it's unproven. And opossums are cute little marsupials. Talk of reservoir competent versus incompetent hosts and vector biology and predator/prey boom-bust cycles? This requires too much explanation.

A byproduct of the Cary Institute story is the viral photo of an opossum supposedly grooming ticks from a deer’s face in the pitch dark. There is no way that the person who set up this remote camera could tell that the opossum was plucking ticks from the deer. But such assertions are avidly consumed and recycled.

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Nonsense about opossums helping humanity by eating deer ticks distracts attention from the genuine habitat crisis caused by the gross overabundance of white-tailed deer which, in turn, has been caused by human development and human reduction of the two deer predators -- cougars and wolves. But cougars and wolves scare people so these predators have been trapped and hunted down to remnant populations.

Well, we prefer Disney, and who can blame us? But in the end, it’s our lives that are impoverished.

Let’s talk about beauty for a moment. The U.S. Forest Service found that when deer exceed 20 per square mile, cerulean warblers, pewees, indigo buntings, least flycatchers, and yellow-billed cuckoos can no longer survive. At 38 deer per square mile, phoebes and even robins disappear. In parts of the East there are as many as 100 deer per square mile. Ground nesters, including wild turkeys, ruffed grouse, woodcock, ovenbirds, and whippoorwills take a huge hit from predators when deer denude forest understories.

Horrendous as it is, deer-nuked habitat is a mere paper cut compared to other wounds inflicted on the planet by humans. For example, demand for arable land and lumber has destroyed at least 50 percent of the Earth’s rain forests. And if the rate of deforestation doesn’t slow, these vital strongholds of biodiversity are likely to vanish within the 100 years.

Making Nice

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In the late nineteenth century, Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin advanced the theory of mutually beneficial cooperation in the animal kingdom and in human societies. He was pilloried for alleged attacks on Darwinism and promotion of communism (horrors!) But cooperation between animals of the same species (and occasionally of different species) is a reality and in no way contradictory to Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

On social media, however, mutual aid is constantly reported where it doesn’t exist. Perhaps these memes appeal to us because they represent our better selves, which lately haven’t been much in evidence.

In 2015, a photo lifted from BBC’s “Frozen Planet” popped up on social media and image sharing sites, and it’s been popping up ever since. The photo is captioned with the following abject fiction: “The 3 wolves in the front are either old or sick. They walk in front to lead the way so as to set the pace. The 5 wolves behind them are the strongest. They protect the front in case of an attack. The middle group consists of newborns, pregnant females, and young wolves. They are fully protected from front as well as from back. The 5 wolves behind the middle group are also among the strongest; they protect the back side. The last and the lone wolf in the back is the leader. He ensures no one is left behind. He keeps the pack tight and cohesive. Also, in case of an ambush he remains active to run in any direction to protect his pack.”

This is wrong on so many levels that there is an article dedicated to explaining all of it. For one thing, the wolf is a top predator and has few natural predators. Maybe it comforts us to think that wolves are just like our pet dogs. These memes and the bodice ripper prose that accompanies them is like eating sugary tasteless food. I have seen wolves in the wild, and the cheap comfort of that illusion cannot compare to the electric thrill of seeing a top predator.

There are so many of these things, it drives this old curmudgeon crazy. In one video an allegedly mutually cooperative giraffe trots over to lift the leafy branch stuck in the gazelle’s horns. The caption reads: “This gazelle had a branch stuck on its head and a giraffe came to help.” The video ends before the giraffe almost certainly starts behaving like a giraffe -- i.e., eating the leaves.

Then there’s the viral video of the mutually cooperative tortoise who rushes over to right its tipped-over “friend.” There are possible reasons for this behavior -- sex perhaps or an inadvertent collision, but not friendship.

When a species is truly on the brink, there's no excuse for misinformation. For four years a meme illustrated with a photo of a honeybee has been appearing regularly. It claims that seven species of bees face extinction, and that if “honeybees go extinct,” we won’t have vegetables.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. The seven species of endangered bees are not honeybees, and all are restricted to Hawaii. They don’t pollinate crops to any significant extent. While honeybees do pollinate crops, they’re also alien invaders that don’t belong in North America.

Honeybees are domesticated insect livestock, globally distributed. There is no long-term decline. Worrying about honeybees going extinct is like worrying about cattle going extinct. It won’t happen. What we do need to worry about is our native bees -- hundreds of species suppressed by, among other things, alien honeybees. Native bees really are in decline, and some do face possible extinction.

Oh, and Save the Whales. Having killed off a large percentage of great whales, we like to believe that we’ve reformed, and we have to an extent. But we can communicate that message without spreading lies that damage the credibility of all authors, honest ones included.

Example: A viral video shows good Samaritans who, to their credit, save an exhausted humpback whale entangled in a net. After they cut it free the whale is said to “leap for joy.” The video shows a whale repeatedly leaping out of the water. Except it’s a different, larger, well-rested whale in different lighting against a different background.

Wild Horses Drag Us Away

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Maybe beauty is part of the problem. That's definitely in play with the horse lovers. Horses are iconic creatures, and central to the American myth. But feral horses and feral burros devastate native ecosystems. Most North American vegetation didn’t evolve to deal with these alien grazers, the only ungulates on the continent with solid hooves and meshing upper and lower teeth. Horses and burros are damaging the semi-arid West because federal law and public sentiment proscribe effective culling and because predators like bears, wolves and cougars don't exist in historic numbers, so they provide scant control.

Social media is rank with fairytales about these feral equids and how they allegedly help remedy what ails the earth. Erick Campbell -- a retired U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) biologist who dealt with these aliens for 30 years -- offers this: “We managed everything from workhorses to Shetland ponies. Your daughter’s horse gets old or she stops liking it. So you turn it loose…. Feral horses and burros are worse than cows. They do incredible damage. When the grass between the shrubs is gone a cow is out of luck, but a horse or burro will stomp that plant to death to get that one last blade. When cows run out of forage the cowboys move them, but horses and burros are out there all year. BLM exacerbates the problem by hauling water to them.”

“Compassionate Conservation” is a euphemism for embracing alien invasives. A sample of “Compassionate Conservation” is entitled “Feral desert donkeys are digging wells, giving water to parched wildlife.” This beloved meme would have us believe that because wildlife occasionally drinks water from holes feral burros hack in the earth, these invasive aliens are salubrious for the planet.

Because they’re larger and more numerous, feral horses are even more of an ecological scourge than feral burros. Rare is the meme posted by feral-horse support groups that doesn’t proclaim that “wild horses” are “native wildlife.”

This fabrication originates from animal-rights consultant Jay Kirkpatrick, who bases his assertion on the fact that a very different, smaller equid was extant in North America some 12,000 years ago before going extinct with the other Ice Age megafauna. Claiming that escaped and abandoned domestic horses are “native” to North America makes as much sense as claiming that African elephants are native to North America because wooly mammoths lived here 12,000 years ago.

While no reputable scientist agrees, at least one geoscientist and the U.S. military took up the romantic notion of importing elephants and camels to fill the slots left by extinct creatures. The U.S. Army's camel corps lasted exactly two years, but there was a real Lawrence of Arabia vibe to the whole thing that left behind a good story.

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The U.S. Army's 1856-1866 attempt to build a "camel corps" is called the first of the military's failed modernization attempts

There are more than enough genuine horror stories about wildlife without concocting bogus ones, many of which are hatched by the environmental community for fundraising. Too often, they make the whole enterprise seem hopeless.

There can be an edge of voyeuristic sadism to the misery business. It's not only the dentist who killed the much-mourned Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe but the trophy-hunting dentist who supposedly killed “1,000 jaguars” in Brazil. (Why is it always a dentist? You got me.) It's not enough to see the viral photos of Americans and their shiny-faced children posed proudly atop a dead animal; it's mass death we're after. Perhaps it's the rest of us who are obsessed with death, not the hunters.

The number of jaguars in all of South America is estimated at 15,000. So are we expected to believe that the dentist singlehandedly reduced the continent’s jaguar population by roughly 7 percent? He would have had to kill one jaguar a week for 19 years.

The story implies that jaguars, the planet’s third biggest cats after lions and tigers, are in trouble because of trophy hunting. This is the least of their problems. While hunters and dentists might be objectionable to some, these memes obscure the real threats faced by jaguars and all big cats. Since the 1880s, jaguar range in Central and South America has been roughly halved by deforestation and habitat fragmentation.

Fragmented forests and savannas make it difficult for jaguars to find mates and isolation leads to inbreeding. As natural habitat and natural prey decline, jaguars, like all big cats, increasingly depend on livestock, thereby suffering retaliation from farmers and ranchers.

Trust Me

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How bad is it? It’s bad. But not necessarily bad in the way headline writers describe it. Lately, memes intended to shock us into action claim that Earth has lost 60 percent of its animals since 1970. The Atlantic explains that this is a misleading oversimplification. In reality, from 1970 to 2014, the size of vertebrate populations has declined by 60 percent on average, writes Ed Yong in The Atlantic.

“To understand the distinction, imagine you have three populations: 5,000 lions, 500 tigers, and 50 bears. Four decades later, you have just 4,500 lions, 100 tigers, and five bears (oh my). Those three populations have declined by 10 percent, 80 percent, and 90 percent, respectively—which means an average decline of 60 percent. But the total number of actual animals has gone down from 5,550 to 4,605, which is a decline of just 17 percent,” Yong writes.

“Why nitpick in the face of catastrophe?” Yong writes rhetorically. “Surely what matters is waking people up, and if an inexactly communicated statistic can do that, isn’t that okay?”

Yong doesn’t think so and neither do I -- especially now, when social media makes so many of us prey to so much misinformation. With trust in government, science and institutions degraded it’s more important than ever to be honest and precise in reporting on wildlife and environmental issues.

The sixth great extinction will proceed apace unless we come to understand and appreciate wildlife for what it is, not what we’d like it to be. We should protect and restore wild animals not because they are beautiful (although certain species are, at least by human standards), not because they are useful (although they sometimes are), not because they are mutually cooperative (although they occasionally can be), not because they are anything, only because they are.

And as it turns out, two dolphins did return to Venice this year, along with the tourists and boats. They had to be rescued from the murky, polluted water. That story is true.

Ted Williams is the dean of American outdoor writers. For nearly 30 years, he wrote a column for Audubon magazine. When the editors tried to get rid of it, the resulting outcry was so vociferous they had to back down. We all love Ted.

The Gospel According to Ted from Forbes: Read here.

Brian's Animal Spirits Playlist

They All Ask’d For You ::: The Meters

Summer All Over ::: Blake Mills

After The Garden ::: Neil Young

It’s Torn ::: Leonard Cohen

Fresh Garbage ::: Spitit

Man Gave Names To All The Animals ::: Bob Dylan

The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game ::: Grace Jones

The Coming Of The Roads ::: Judy Collins

Growl with Journal of the Plague Years