There’s a really cute video doing the viral rounds of the internet of a ring-tail lemur repeatedly demanding a back scratch from two young boys.
It shows two Madagascan boys crouching near a tame lemur named Sefo, rubbing his back. If they stop, the animal immediately stares at the boys, tapping the spot on his own back with his paw, demanding more.
— Anthony Gotti (@AnthonyGotti) April 20, 2016
Yes, the video, posted to YouTube and also shared on Facebook, is extremely cute. Lemurs are cute animals, with their thick, plush fur and great big luminous eyes, but according to conservationists, sharing videos of this nature can only cause harm to the endangered animals.
While it is illegal to keep endangered creatures like lemurs as pets, many people do try to keep them, usually with disastrous results.
Kim Reuter is a conservation biologist with the nonprofit organization Conservation International, based in Nairobi in Kenya. Reuter says when watching the video, “All you see in the video is two adorable kids and an adorable lemur,” but adds that viral videos of this nature only stoke the demand for these creatures from the wild.
As reported by NPR, lemurs, a distant relative of the ape family, are found mainly on the island of Madagascar but are disappearing from the dry forests they used to populate. Due to habitat destruction and the illegal pet trade, ring-tailed lemurs like the one in the video, as well as many of the hundred-plus other lemur species (including the black and white lemur pictured below) are now critically endangered.
National Geographic reports that according to research, around 28,000 lemurs have been kept as household pets in the past five years. Reportedly, private owners particularly favor the ring-tailed lemurs. Lemurs do poorly as pets, as many owners have no idea how to care for animals taken from the wild.
Reuter says the owners often feed the lemurs the wrong food, and the animals are exposed to diseases they wouldn’t normally contract. As the animals age, they often become aggressive, meaning that the owners sometimes end up killing the pet lemurs.
“When people see videos like this, it does a disservice to all the conservation initiatives that have been trying to get the message across that lemurs are wild animals and endangered,” Reuter says.
Hotels in Madagascar are also known to keep pet lemurs as a way to entice guests through their doors. Few of those hotels have the correct permit to own the animals and Malagasy law allegedly bans possession of lemurs without such a permit.
National Geographic reports that it isn’t only lemurs that get caught up in a viral social media frenzy, as often trending images and videos give the wrong impression that all kinds of cute, endangered creatures would make great pets. They quote the example of the endangered pygmy marmoset monkey, regularly on sale at Chinese pet stores, which is more than likely to die in captivity.
Another example is raccoon dogs, creatures that look like raccoons but are really wild members of the canid family, similar to foxes and wolves. These creatures can become too difficult to handle and also spread diseases.
Reuter says the impact of the cute lemur video on the pet trade is unknowable, but she has noted an ongoing slew of tweets from people keen to have them as pets since the video was posted. However, she says there is a good reason for alarm.
According to a 2013 study, researchers discovered that 10 percent of 12,000 comments posted to a 2009 viral video featuring a pygmy slow loris, a small endangered Asian primate, said they wanted one as a pet.
Lead author of the study, Anna Nekaris, who is a primatologist at Oxford Brooks University in the U.K. told Live Science, “I’ve been studying slow lorises for a long time, and the video completely changed everything.”
“Nobody knew what a loris was before the YouTube video, but now everybody knows them.”
While everyone loves a cute animal video, it only goes to show how much danger those same cute animals can be placed in if anyone decides to take them home as a pet.
[Photo courtesy and copyright Anne Sewell]