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Taking selfies with sloths sounds cute, but you could be supporting poachers

An unharassed sloth at the Punta Culebra Nature Center, in Panama.
An unharassed sloth at the Punta Culebra Nature Center, in Panama.
Image: flickr user Brian Gratwicke

There’s a dark side to animal selfies. 

Although most people aren’t interested in harming wild critters, the watchdog organization World Animal Protection says that Instagram selfies taken with animals are contributing to eco-tourism companies who poach wild animals (including sloths and crocodiles) for selfie opportunities and confine them in appalling places, like broken refrigerators. 

The organization is now asking Instagram — home to tens of billions of pictures and an untold number of selfies — to discourage the app’s users from including compromised critters in their selfies.

The CEO of World Animal Protection, Steve McIvor, revealed in a Guardian opinion piece today that it sent investigators to two popular tourist locations in the Amazon — Manaus in Brazil and Puerto Alegria in Peru — and discovered “heartbreaking” conditions.

Investigators observed anteaters getting hit and slapped, caimans with mouths taped shut “stored” in broken fridges, and anacondas confined in dark boxes — when they’re not temporally released for selfie duty.

Tree-dwelling sloths, too, couldn’t escape capture. According to McIvor:

The team also discovered sloths are being poached from the wild to be used for selfies. Each sloth is usually held by about five people within just a few minutes, causing them immense stress. Behind the scenes, they are tied to trees with rope and, tragically, rarely live to six months.

In a written statement, an Instagram spokesperson told Mashable that “We prohibit the use of Instagram to facilitate or organize criminal activity that causes physical harm to animals.” What’s more, Instagram seems well aware of the problem of unethically taken selfies:

In ongoing conversations with wildlife experts, we are looking at ways to provide our community with information around activities that can be harmful to animals and nature such as posting content that may depict exploitation of wildlife and bad welfare practices.

World Animal Protection wants Instagram to update its user guidelines to include a section on animal cruelty. It also encourages users to sign its “Wildlife Selfie Pledge,” to show Instagram that a significant number of people are concerned about the problem.

And for those traveling into sloth country, the organization offers this reminder:

“Sloths do not want a hug – they just want to survive.”

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