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Should You Take That Sloth Selfie?

A new Costa Rican campaign helps protect wild animals by providing do’s and don’ts for animal selfies.

Mugging with a monkey, hugging a sloth, or riding a giant sea turtle: what won’t people do for a memorable selfie with a wild animal? A new campaign in Costa Rica hopes to educate visitors into thinking twice about such shots, which can endanger animals in the wild or promote keeping them in captivity. The campaign, #stopanimalselfies, launched in late 2019.

Despite the name, the campaign doesn’t aim to eliminate all animal selfies. Instead, it gives tips on how to take photos that don’t put you or the animal at risk, as well as suggesting what to avoid, like snapping shots of yourself holding chained animals in facilities that bill themselves as rescue centers.

Do’s and Don’t’s of the #StopAnimalSelfies Campaign

Don’t take a wildlife selfie if…

  • I’m being held, hugged, or restrained.
  • You’re baiting me with food.
  • I could harm you.

Do take a wildlife selfie if…

  • You keep a safe distance from me.
  • I’m in my natural home.
  • I’m free to move, and not captive.

Costa Rica’s campaign is a local response to a global problem. The search for the perfect photo op is adversely affecting animals around the world, and wildlife selfies shared on social media platforms like Instagram can promote and normalize behavior that harms animals. A 2017 report issued by World Animal Protection found a 292% increase in the number of wildlife selfies posted on Instagram between 2014 and 2017. A full 40% of the images posted were “bad selfies”—someone hugging, holding or inappropriately interacting with a wild animal. “Good” selfies showed no contact between animal and human, and the animal wasn’t restrained or used as a prop.

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A full 40% of the images posted were “bad selfies”—someone hugging, holding or inappropriately interacting with a wild animal.

The report also found that sloths were the third most selfie-worthy species worldwide (after kangaroos and elephants), and discovered that among wildlife tourist attractions in Latin America that promised close encounters with animals, 54% offered direct contact (which is illegal), such as holding the animals for selfies; 35% used food to attract wild animals; and 11% offered tourists the opportunity to swim with wild animals. It’s well known that humans swimming with dolphins, for instance, can stress the marine mammals, and is particularly harmful to mothers with calves, eventually affecting the reproductive success of the population.

Laws Aren’t Enough

It was that same World Animal Protection report that led to the Costa Rica campaign and to new laws governing wildlife facilities there. When the report ranked Costa Rica seventh in terms of where wildlife selfies were taken in the world, new legislation was born, eventually accompanied by the #stopanimalselfies campaign. Roberto Vieto, wildlife campaigns manager for World Animal Protection, and a Costa Rican himself says the campaign is “an education and awareness” tool that “supports the implementation of new regulatory framework,” like facilities billing themselves as rescue centers can no longer legally receive visitors, and no wildlife facility may allow visitors to hold wild animals.

Noting that Costa Rica is the first country to pass such legislation and launch such a campaign, Cassandra Koenen, Global Head of World Animal Protection’s “Animals in the Wild” campaign, says “the fact that a government has taken such a bold move as to make it illegal to use animals in this way sends a strong message to other countries. Hopefully, Costa Rica will be the first of many to create similar legislation.”

But if the country has laws protecting wild animals, why does it need a social media campaign like #stopanimalselfies? Because behavior doesn’t always conform to law and the borderless world of social media has its own laws, with users aping the behavior of celebrities and peers. If Taylor Swift pets a kangaroo, Roger Federer gets chummy with a quokka, or your cousin holds a baby monkey on her hip, many people’s response is “Jealous!!!” and book a trip where you can do the same.

And even though Costa Rican law prohibits the capture of wild animals, bans direct contact with wild animals, and bars public access to rescue centers, it’s still common to see tourists getting too close to wild animals for selfies, in animal facilities and in the wild. Photos that went viral in 2015, for example, show a smiling young woman splashing among nesting turtles at Ostional Wildlife refuge as a mob of eco-tourists made the turtle’s arrival on the beach to lay eggs all but impossible. Headlines like “Sea turtles’ chance to beat extinction destroyed by a selfie” nailed the fact that such behavior can endanger not only individual animals but also the fate of entire species. Access to that nesting beach has since been restricted, but similar situations crop up often enough that Costa Rica knows it must pair regulation with education.

What About Fake Animal Sanctuaries?

Why can’t Costa Rica just make a list of good and bad animal sanctuaries to guide tourists? According to World Animal Protection’s Roberto Vieto, it’s not that simple, as only two facilities in Costa Rica are accredited by the Global Federation of Animals Sanctuaries: Zooave Animal Rescue and Las Pumas Rescue Center. But just because a facility hasn’t applied for accreditation doesn’t necessarily mean it’s “fake” or even problematic.

If Taylor Swift pets a kangaroo, Roger Federer gets chummy with a quokka, or your cousin holds a baby monkey on her hip, many people’s response is “Jealous!!!” and booking a trip where you can do the same.

Enforcement of existing regulations is limited by agency budgets, and wildlife facilities may shift their practices in response to outside pressure or to new research about how human contact affects animals. For example, the Sloth Sanctuary, source of many an online sloth-hugging video, no longer allows that sort of contact, writing on its website that “in 2014 we were alarmed to discover from a scientific standpoint how stressful and dangerous it is for sloths to be held by strangers.” The facility has been featured on Animal Planet and does a brisk business in sloth swag and half-day tours at $150 a pop. In 2015 two veterinarians who’d volunteered there blasted the place for being “a nightmare for the animals.” Subsequent articles touched on how the issue is complicated, especially when centers accept injured and abused animals that can’t be safely released into the wild.

But with enduring criticisms that some facilities care more about profit than animal welfare, it’s all the more important for visitors to know the laws, and refuse to take part in illegal practices that could harm animals.

Social Media as Both Problem and Solution

Costa Rica may be the first country to create such a campaign, but social media platforms and travel sites have also taken aim at the problem. In 2017, Tinder banned tiger selfies, and Instagram created a “wildlife warning” education page that pops up when users search hashtags like #slothselfie. In October 2019, Trip Advisor announced it would no longer sell tickets to events or attractions that breed or buy dolphins, whales, and other marine mammals. That same month, Airbnb partnered with World Animal Protection to launch an “Animal Experiences” booking option that has an ethical focus. Its policy prohibits elephant interactions (including riding, bathing, or feeding), as well as any experiences involving captive marine mammals. It has protections for domesticated animals and bans direct contact with wild animals, such as petting and feeding them (their full policy is here).

If all these prohibitions sound too daunting for a vacation that’s supposed to be fun, just do what the #stopanimalselfies campaign promotes: mug with a stuffed animal, captioning your post “I don’t harm wild animals for a selfie.” Forgot to pack your plushie? There’s a big stuffed sloth at the airport photo booth, complete with a jungle backdrop, just waiting for you.