Goodbye Doggo, Hello Bearded Dragon: Inside Exotic Petstagram

Social media has demonstrably increased demand for exotic pets. Platforms like Facebook and Instagram have become conduits for black-market trade of both animal products and the animals themselves. Those animals are often illegal for very good reason—usually because they’re endangered in their home range, like (extremely loquacious) African grey parrots, or those Benedict Cumberbatch-looking otters you saw all over the internet a few years ago. In both cases, the social media popularity of these animals have only made them harder to protect, and fueled an industry that’s frequently harmful to human and animal participants alike. (Seriously: the illegal wildlife trade is tied to everything from terrorist organizations to slavery to the spread of Ebola.)

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The demands of virality can affect even non-endangered animals. “Popular culture creates sudden spikes in demand for a specific wild pet,” says Rosanna Vail, managing editor of the Human-Wildlife Interactions journal, who has been studying the rise of exotic pets on social media since hearing about a teenager being trampled by a once-cuddly feral hog. “Because of the Harry Potter effect, there’s a huge demand for wild-caught owls in Indonesia that’s starting to really impact owl conservation.” That’s always been true—remember what happened to Dalmatians after 101 Dalmations?—but social media intensifies the impact, and increases the reach of the mania.

Instagram stars like Loki, as well as the popularity of Game of Thrones, have created a huge surge in the number of people wanting to keep wolf-dogs as pets. Hybridizing wild and domestic species to create a more manageable animal isn’t necessarily a better option, though. Not only is the mating prcoess often dangerous for the domesticated animal, but the offspring frequently have genetic abnormalities and higher susceptibility to diseases. And while these animals are certainly less wild, they’re still far more unpredictable and difficult to take care of than their domestic counterparts, so many end up in shelters that are no more prepared to handle them than their owners were—and, sadly, many abandoned wolf-dogs end up being euthanized within a week.

Does this mean that, in order to remain morally pure, one must unfollow all these accounts in a huff? Absolutely not. The trouble with exotic animal Instagram is that you have to assess it on a pet-by-pet basis. For every John Snow-idolizing wolf-dog owner who knows nothing of the breed, there’s someone like Anneka Svenska, who uses her Instagram and YouTube channel to educate people about the specialist care and knowledge wolf-dogs need, and the lifestyle sacrifices a responsible owner must to make to ensure their safety and happiness. Or the widely-beloved red fox Juniper, whose owners make it clear that she is as smelly and utterly impossible to house train as she is cute.

“The animals have to come first, and the followers second,” says Vail. “But the personalities and charm people see in these animals on social media is impacting their perception of wildlife”. At worst, these pets are ill-advised accessories. But at best, they’re furry ambassadors educating people about, and generating empathy for, their wild brethren.

Clarification (January 28, 2019, 1:00 PM ET): This article has been updated to clarify the relationship between WAGSociety and HelloSociety.

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