How fake animal rescue videos have become a new frontier for animal abuse

National Geographic finds continued animal suffering and exploitation in these YouTube videos. Here's what's being done months after the platform pledged to take swift action.

Published 1 Jul 2021, 14:17 BST
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YouTube is rife with staged videos where animals attack each other, despite a policy banning abuse and exploitative animal content. Species like the Burmese python, pictured here in a studio shot, are often featured as predators, but sometimes as prey.
Photograph by Gerry Pearce, Alamy

Mark Auliya has no problem with snakes attacking other animals. Carnivores need to eat, after all. But last month, staring at a YouTube video in his home office in Bonn, Germany, the reptile expert threw his glasses down in disgust. “This is something really nasty,” he said.

On Auliya’s screen, a Burmese python, a constrictor that normally kills birds and small mammals, was locked onto a gibbon. The panicked primate was fighting for its life as the snake, coiled around its torso, began squeezing. Soon, the gibbon stopped moving. A man in a blue soccer jersey and jeans appears. Hurriedly, he uncoils the python, freeing the gibbon, and carries the snake offscreen. The traumatised gibbon cowers, covering its head.

“It’s so obvious this is fake, but people believe it,” says Auliya, a herpetologist at the Zoological Research Museum Alexander Koenig. The video seemed to suggest that the rescuer had arrived just in time to save the gibbon. But pythons first bite prey animals to anchor their constriction—something that didn’t happen in the gibbon video, Auliya says. Pythons also are nocturnal hunters, yet this video and many like it were shot during the day.

To Auliya, the only things that appeared real were the mistreatment of the animals being forced into these situations and the stress it must have caused them.

Several years ago, animal welfare groups first started noticing that videos of fake animal rescues were proliferating on YouTube. They’re all variations on a theme: An eagle attacks a snake, a crocodile attacks a duck, snakes attack pet cats, dogs, lizards. In each case, the kills are thwarted by human saviours who conveniently come upon them or hear the animals’ cries in time to prevent carnage.

Making the videos causes stress, injury, and likely even death for the animals involved, says Anne-Lise Chaber, a wildlife veterinarian and One Health specialist at the University of Adelaide, in Australia. Beyond that, fake animal rescues spread misconceptions about species and inspire copycats, says Chaber, who has studied how YouTube normalises the exotic pet trade and interactions between humans and wild animals. It’s natural for animals to predate in the wild, without human intervention, yet the videos mislead viewers about animals’ natural behaviours, demonising predator species such as snakes and birds of prey.

They also divert attention from genuine animal welfare and conservation issues, says Daniel Natusch, a conservation biologist at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, and a member of several reptile specialist groups with the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The IUCN sets the conservation status of wild animals. The videos often have titles with phrasing such as “primitive man saves snake” which encourages “racial intolerance and misunderstanding” he says.

Why do people force captive animals into dangerous or harmful situations? To get as many clicks as possible and likely make money. By posting something that gets millions of clicks on social media, someone potentially can make thousands of pounds, according to Jason Urgo, the CEO of Social Blade, a company that tracks social media platform statistics. Anyone can create a YouTube channel and post videos to it. But to begin profiting from the Google-owned platform’s ad-sharing programs, channel owners need a thousand subscribers and 4,000 hours of viewership during the previous 12 months.

Since the first YouTube video was uploaded in 2005, the platform has grown exponentially—and with it, criticism that it doesn’t do enough to prevent content deemed damaging to the public good, such as hoax conspiracies, hate speech, animal cruelty, and more. Its community guidelines bar “violent or gory content intended to shock or disgust viewers,” and the company says it has hired 10,000 people and uses machine learning to moderate the 500 hours of video uploaded to the platform every minute. Between January and March 2021, YouTube says it removed more than nine million videos for violating its community guidelines.

Yet the review process is cumbersome, slow, and inconsistent, current and former moderators have told The Washington Post. To help speed things up, YouTube has created tools such as its Trusted Flagger program—a way government agencies and NGOs, among others, can assist with moderation. Flaggers can’t remove videos, but items singled out “may expedite review by our teams,” according to YouTube’s written policies.

In one of hundreds of fake animal rescues posted on YouTube, a Burmese python coils around a gibbon’s body until a person “discovers” the pair and saves the primate.
Photograph by Video Screenshot from Youtube

Waiting for a remedy 

In March 2021, YouTube announced that it would take action in the next few weeks to ban fake animal rescue videos. Since then, more than a hundred have been posted and hundreds remain, according to tracking from Lady Freethinker, a California-based animal welfare nonprofit.

Lady Freethinker applied to join YouTube’s flagger program in April 2021. But days later, YouTube informed them that it was not “actively onboarding flaggers with expertise in the policy areas most relevant to your organisation at this time,” Nina Jackel, the founder and president of Lady Freethinker, says.

YouTube did not respond to questions about that decision and declined National Geographic’s interview requests. “We have a dedicated policy team that reviews and updates our policies on an ongoing basis, and keeps them current,” the company said in a statement.

The channel featuring the python-gibbon video, which has 83,000 subscribers, published nine dubious “rescue” videos in May. A post on another channel that claims to feature a “real fight” between a pig and a python has had more than six million clicks since it was published in March 2020; nearly a million of those were in May alone. (YouTube deactivated the channels in June after National Geographic contacted the company to request an interview, and shared a list of videos with suspect rescues involving animals.

Tim Kasser, an emeritus psychology professor at Knox College, in Illinois, who has studied consumer capitalism and values, says the videos appeal to two kinds of people: Those drawn to heartwarming scenes of cuddly animals being saved and those who enjoy seeing animals fighting and under duress.

The videos may get large numbers of views but seem not to elicit many comments. “Very daring and courageous work” one commenter wrote about that pig-python video—its likes outnumbered the dislikes, 27,000 to 4,000.

“Fantastic” was another reaction, accompanied by six heart and kiss emojis. (National Geographic is not sharing names of channels or linking to any of the videos to avoid driving traffic to them.)

Telltale signs

Fake rescue videos are formulaic. They’re usually about five-minutes long and feature an attacking animal and a victim in a muddy hole surrounded by vegetation. Animals’ struggles are juxtaposed with an approaching human rescuer, often with a soundtrack of instrumental or electronic music to heighten the drama. There’s also a long lead-up to the encounter, perhaps to emulate the style of nature documentaries, says DJ Schubert, a wildlife biologist with the Washington, D.C.-based Animal Welfare Institute.

Schubert says dramatic, varied camera angles and the sheer volume of the videos are giveaways that they’re staged. “Generally, if you are a wildlife photographer or filmmaker, it takes countless hours, days, months, or even years to get the footage ethically that can tell the story of a species in the wild,” he says.

Brent Stirton, a National Geographic photographer who documents wildlife, says it’s incredibly challenging to get real scenes of animal conflict. “Unless you are taking your pet deep into the Florida Everglades and walking alongside alligator territory or deliberately walking your pet underneath a python, that’d be very rare,” he says. Contrived situations aren’t limited to YouTube. It happens sometimes with documentaries or nature shows, he says. “In the worst cases, you are asking for funding and taking monies away from people taking the long route to get this footage—which is really following the animals and not traumatising them.”

What may signal to scientists and animal experts why a video is a lie may not be obvious to many viewers.

Some animals may have identifiable injuries before the conflict scenes, suggesting that that they’ve been subjected to repeated takes. Birds of prey may appear sickly and have their wings clipped to prevent them from flying away—underscoring that they’re captive animals. Snakes used in multiple videos can be recognised by their facial markings and injuries, say animal researchers who reviewed a sampling of about a dozen videos for National Geographic.

In addition, if the predator doesn’t try to escape a human handler, or the scenes are filmed in a location where one or both animals wouldn’t be seen in the wild—a rainforest species filmed in dry, open country, for example—those are signs that something’s wrong, says Neil D’Cruze, a herpetologist and the global head of wildlife research for the advocacy group World Animal Protection.

Image from a youtube video displaying a fake animal rescue
Photograph by Video Screenshots from Youtube
Image from a youtube video displaying a fake animal rescue
Photograph by Video Screenshots from Youtube

Mistreated snakes 

Science suggests that snakes feel “anxiety, distress, excitement, fear, frustration, pain, stress, and suffering,” says D’Cruze who has studied scientific research on reptile sentience. “This has real implications for how reptiles should be treated.”

In the videos, snakes often are the predators seemingly attacking smaller, cute animals. It’s extremely stressful for snakes to be manhandled and placed in these enclosed spaces with other animals and their human handlers, D’Cruze says. Snakes can’t be trained, so these scenes may need to be filmed many times—with unknown consequences for their well-being, he says.

Auliya says that when he scrutinised the python-gibbon video, it was easier to appreciate how bad it was for the snake. That animal was too weak to take on an animal as big as a gibbon, he says. It actually tried to escape after the ape screams, bites it, and slams its head against the ground. Camera angles and multiple takes stitched together make that almost indiscernible. The stress from being put in this situation, for both snake and gibbon, is very real, Auliya says.

“Unless you are taking your pet deep into the Florida Everglades and walking alongside alligator territory, or deliberately walking your pet underneath a python, that’d be very rare.”

Brent Stirton, National Geographic Photographer

Signs of obvious physical harm to snakes can be apparent. In one video, a snake had a bloody gash across its snout before it moved in on a lizard. In another that featured a snake supposedly confronting a dog, the snake looks almost dead—it is too easily uncoiled and then just lies still after being removed. “A live python wouldn’t lie like that,” Auliya says; instead, the reptile would immediately strike back at its prey. Snakes in these videos also often have scarring on their snouts where their scales have been rubbed away, an injury typically resulting from captive snakes obsessively striking against the wire bars of their cage.

As Lady Freethinker’s Jackel says, what’s not shown in the final cut of these videos is that the animals being exploited may be seriously injured or even die.

Tracking fake animal videos 

Every time you watch a video, YouTube is watching you—or rather its algorithms are taking note of your choices. When I viewed an animal video while reporting this story, YouTube fed me another one immediately after, with ads from major companies popping up in between. (The channels those advertisements appeared on were deactivated after National Geographic reported the URLs to YouTube.)

Lady Freethinker conducted a three-month investigation of YouTube last year. The group’s research team started off by searching for common keywords such as “dogfighting” and “cockfighting” and “monkey torture.” YouTube’s algorithm then played similar content after researchers watched the videos that appeared. Ultimately, the researchers identified more than 2,000 videos in which, Lady Freethinker alleges, animals were knowingly harmed. Among them were fake rescue videos that collectively had more than 40 million views.

When reporters for the Guardian and other outlets who wrote about Lady Freethinker’s investigation sent YouTube the URLs of the problem videos, all were removed, Jackel says. But, she adds, that doesn’t always happen.

“As a test, we reported 10 random fake animal rescue videos, each on a different channel, on May 11, 2021, using YouTube's reporting system. All 10 videos were still available in mid-June, she says.

When contacted for this story, YouTube took down nine of the 10 videos I reported to them and deactivated several of the flagged channels—which included three on Lady Freethinker’s list. “Our violent or graphic content policy prohibits content depicting unnecessary suffering or harm against animals, and in accordance with this policy we removed three channels flagged to us by National Geographic,” YouTube said in a statement on June 21, 2021.

“Towards the end of this month we’ll be expanding our violent or graphic content policy to more clearly prohibit content featuring deliberate physical suffering or harm to animals,” YouTube said in its statement. The company didn’t say how it would do so or whether there would be a formal announcement of a new policy.

The day before this story was set to publish, YouTube alerted National Geographic that it was adopting a new policy on June 30 to facilitate removal of animal rescue content “that has been staged and places the animal in harmful scenarios.” No further details were provided about how this would be done, and how quickly.

Meanwhile, fake animal rescue videos are still being posted.

Eagles are one of the animals in fabricated rescue videos often portrayed as the attackers. The videos demonize carnivores that in the wild kill prey to survive.
Photograph by Video Screenshot from Youtube

Who makes the videos?

Most of the uploaded videos across the various channels appear to be shot in Southeast Asia, likely in Cambodia, according to Jackel and other animal researchers. Khmer, Cambodia’s main language, is often spoken in the videos, the snakes featured are species indigenous to the region, and the vegetation looks right, they say.

Jobs are scarce in Cambodia’s countryside, home to 90 percent of the nation’s poorest people. Moreover, tourism, manufacturing, and construction—which account for 40 percent of jobs—have been drastically curtailed during the pandemic.

“Many people in places like Cambodia and Vietnam have pet reptiles or breed them for meat and other purposes like we do with chickens,” says Natusch, who reviewed some of the videos for National Geographic. “These animals look like they are kept in cages most of the time in the local village.”

Bellingcat, an open-source investigation website, examined more than a dozen videos on one of the most prolific fake animal rescue channels for National Geographic. The group looked for environmental cues to help identify the likely locations where the videos were made.

Foeke Postma, a Bellingcat investigator and trainer, says he suspects that “based on some details in the videos and mountain ranges,” they were made near Tuk Meas Khang Lech, a rural area in the southern part of Cambodia. But he couldn’t pinpoint where. “The rural nature of these videos will make it difficult to track them or find exact locations,” he says.

Where the videos are filmed matters for people trying to halt the exploitation, Jackel says. “That’s the only way local law enforcement can do anything about it.” It’s also important to find out who owns the channels that feature the videos, she says. They’re the people receiving payment from Google if the channels are monetised, and who may get some video notoriety. "Obviously people want attention, and that can be a very powerful draw,” Jackel says. “Even if they aren’t profiting from it, there’s still a danger—you can be popular on YouTube if you torture animals.” 

It’s unlikely that those channel owners are based in Cambodia, which isn’t listed as an eligible country for YouTube’s ad partnership agreements.

Only Google and the YouTube channel account owner know what country a channel is registered in for payment and tax purposes, says Urgo, of Social Blade. The “about" page, which is visible on each channel, may not reflect where the videos are being shot: Someone who lists a channel in the U.S., say, could post videos from anywhere.

YouTube said in a statement that the channel reviewed by Bellingcat had not been monetised.

What can be done to help

The responsibility to report problematic videos should not fall on viewers, Jackel says. “It is YouTube’s obligation to ensure that its platform is not promoting animal cruelty and that all abusive content is removed.”

Still, viewers should report what they think are cruel, fake videos to YouTube, and they shouldn’t share them, she says. To report a video, users should click “report” in the bottom right corner of the video, select that it’s “violent or repulsive content,” and choose the option “animal abuse.”

Putting pressure on advertisers could help too, Jackel and others say. Major brands such as PepsiCo, Walmart, and Starbucks pulled their YouTube ads in 2017 after the Wall Street Journal found that they were placed alongside videos that promoted hate speech. The boycotts prompted YouTube to announce its intention to ramp up enforcement. The platform updated its hate speech and harassment policies in 2019—prohibiting videos that allege a group is superior to others in order to justify discrimination.

Policing problematic content is likely a “never-ending war” for YouTube, the Animal Welfare Institute’s Schubert says. But it’s still the responsibility of social media companies to develop algorithms to enforce their own guidelines and to hire enough people to monitor animal abuse videos and take them down as quickly as possible.

YouTube could use programs to scan and recognise threatened or endangered species in animal videos and create automatic notifications about the animals’ level of endangerment, with contextual information about animal exploitation, Chaber says. Viewers should see the notifications before they can watch the videos, she says. The platform already has adopted a similar approach with hoax videos.

When users search YouTube for topics known to be prone to misinformation, warning or educational panels pop up. If a user searches for “coronavirus,” for example, an information panel saying “learn more” links to the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID website. The box is also visible at the bottom of the individual listed videos. Something like this could be done with animal videos, Chaber says.

But not everyone agrees that warning notices would help. Jackel says she’s wary of using this kind of intervention for fake animal rescues because it could add a layer of novelty to sharing them or watching them. It also puts the focus on saying these videos are deceptive rather than that they abuse animals, she says.  

“The most pressing issue is the violence toward animals—which should never be allowed as ‘entertainment,’ no matter how it’s labeled,” Jackel says. The focus should be on removing the videos right away. “Videos promoting animal cruelty have no place on YouTube, period.”

Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at natgeo.com/impact. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to NGP.WildlifeWatch@natgeo.com.

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