Surfing on whale sharks, riding a moose, and mugging with bears, smart phone users do some not-so-smart, dangerous, even cruel things.
By Vicki Croke
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.)
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. As a result of more people going in the springs, manatee molestings are on the rise, says PEER [Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility] staff counsel Laura Dumais. “The volunteers who patrol the area will tell you it has gotten really out of control,” Dumais said. “Visitors are chasing manatees, standing on them, picking up calves and separating them from their mothers.” Last month, PEER sent a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service threatening a lawsuit against the federal agency due to its lax enforcement of manatee protection laws while allowing rampant human contact with the animals. “The increase of special use permits brings thousands of people in close proximity with manatees,” Dumais said. “Putting them in the water to have physical contact with the animals and disrupt their natural habitat is going way too far. There are other ways to make interaction with the manatees enjoyable for the tourists.”
And it’s not just individuals who are distressing wild animals in the name of getting a better angle. Last month, the whale watching tour company Juneau Whale Watch had to pay National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries “for violations of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act for two separate incidents, both of which occurred in August 2013,” according to the NOAA website: NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement issued the notices of violations and assessments to Juneau Whale Watch following reports of harassment incidents from witnesses. Those reports were supported with ample video and photographic evidence… On August 3, 2013, the M/V L’OOK was seen harassing a pod of orcas by chasing the whales with the vessel and causing the animals to change their behavior. The penalty was $4,480. On August 10, 2013, eyewitnesses reported the company violated the 100-yard exclusionary zone around endangered humpback whales by allowing personnel to use stand-up paddle boards to get near the whales, including a mother-calf pair. The penalty for that incident was $8,750.
The desire to take pictures with tigers became enough of a problem that the state of New York banned the practice last year. As the New York Times reported at the time: The law signed this week by Gov. Andrew Cuomo prohibits direct contact between members of the public and big cats at traveling animal shows and fairs. Animal exhibitors would face fines for each violation. So-called tiger selfies have emerged as popular profile photos on online dating sites, with users — generally young men — looking to stand out by posting a photo of themselves with the dangerous predators.
The paper cited an incident in Kansas in 2005 in which 17-year-old girl was killed while posing for her senior pictures with a tiger. Nicole Paquette says that HSUS has been closely tracking this trend with captive animals. Aside from the inherent danger of this practice, she says, it also helps fuel the exotic pet trade.
“Bear selfies” became such a trend, that wildlife rangers have had to post warnings about the practice.
She also says she understands a desire to be close to animals, but “There is a responsible way to go about being one with nature…but there has to be respect between you and an animal. You’ve entered their home and their environment and you’ve got to respect that balance.”
Produced by Christen Goguen. Originally appeared on WBUR’s The Wild Life and Here&Now.