Photography

Why people risk their lives for the ultimate animal selfie

At zoos and parks, people regularly approach animals that can kill them. What's the psychology behind the impulse?Friday, March 15, 2019

By Natasha Daly
At a zoo in France, a woman photographs a white tiger behind glass. A sign says not to touch. Stories of people entering wild animal enclosures to get selfies tend to baffle the public: Why would a person ever do something so foolish?

It goes without saying that it’s a terrible idea to enter a wild animal’s enclosure.

But a few days ago, in the quest for a selfie, a woman climbed over the concrete barrier of a jaguar enclosure at Wildlife World Zoo, outside of Phoenix, Arizona. The jaguar grabbed her sweater and ripped into her arm—the grisly wound caught on video. Bystanders pulled her away before the animal could injure her further. She’s fine—so is the jaguar—and has admitted fault for her actions.

The story went viral, and the internet collectively posed the question: What would possess someone to do something so foolish?

This isn’t the first time a story of a person acting reckless to get close to a wild animal has made headlines. Last year, an intoxicated man jumped into a lion enclosure at an Indian zoo because he wanted to see the big cats up close. A zoo-goer in China entered multiple animal enclosures for selfies before being killed by a walrus. Similar incidents are a regular occurrence in natural settings too: Multiple tourists in Yellowstone National Park have been gored by bison when they’ve gotten too close for a photo.

It’s common sense to not get close to wild animals that can hurt you. It’s why zoos have barriers—sometimes multiple walls—to keep people seperated from animals. Signs posted everywhere state the obvious: Keep your hands out of the cage.

Yet the impulse to get close to wild animals can be strong enough to make someone ignore reason.

As lions sleep in their enclosure at a Lithuania zoo, a woman snaps a photo. Television and social media is full of footage of people interacting hands-on with big cats. These controversial activities may perpetuate a misconception that the large predators aren't truly dangerous.

“Animals have become less real to us,” says Susan Clayton, a professor of psychology and environmental studies at the College of Wooster in Ohio. Because we encounter exotic animals most frequently in managed settings like zoos, she believes that the animals, to some extent, become like props to us. People who get recklessly close to wild animals obviously don’t really think before they act, says Clayton, “but at a more implicit level, [they’ve] stopped associating animals with danger.”

There are a number of cultural reasons for it. For one, media often normalises encounters with dangerous animals, Clayton says. Television shows and YouTube videos depicting thrill-seekers wrangling wild animals “de-fang the animal symbolically.” In other words, seeing a man like “Lion Whisperer” Kevin Richardson regularly play-fight and cuddle with with lions, jaguars, and hyenas may send the message that these animals aren’t so dangerous after all. Richardson has just under a million subscribers to his YouTube channel, but has received criticism from some conservation groups who say that his promotion of close contact with lions is irresponsible. 

Social platforms are also saturated with wild animal selfies. Many zoos, parks, and adventure tours around the world offer intimate experiences to the public, like walking with lions, posing with adult tigers, and cage diving with sharks—all of which are potentially dangerous to both humans and the animals’ well-being.

SELFIE IMPULSE

Social media is perfectly positioned to contribute to the rise of thrill-seeking animal encounters, says Erin Vogel, a postdoctoral fellow in the department of psychology at the University of California, San Francisco. Getting likes and comments provide instant gratification, she says, noting that studies have found that when you post to social media, your self-esteem actually gets a temporary boost.

To hold onto that feeling, even subconsciously, people may “go to more and more extremes” to showcase the most exciting versions of themselves, Vogel says. It may not be enough to get a photo of a beautiful, dangerous animal from outside a cage or across a valley, she says. By taking a selfie, you show that you’re part of that experience.

A visitor views a polar bear at a zoo in France from behind glass. At many U.S. national parks, including Yellowstone, people increasingly risk death to get close to bears and other wild animals for photo ops. Yellowstone National Park has issued "safe selfie" guidelines to try to deter the reckless behavior.

It’s not just dangerous animal encounters. People risk their lives all the time for extreme selfies, by standing near moving trains, teetering on the edges of cliffs, even posing with loaded guns. Results are often tragic. A 2018 study found that there were 259 documented “selfie deaths” worldwide between 2011 and 2017. Most incidents involved risky behavior, and the victims were mostly men in their early 20s.

“People have always liked to do dangerous things,” Vogel says, even before social media existed. “But we do see people behaving on social media in ways they wouldn’t otherwise.” It’s the same impulse that takes over when you’re on vacation, or having a great experience with friends: If you’re focused on capturing the moment on Instagram, you’re not actually fully, consciously in the moment.

“If you’re already focused on posting that selfie on social media, you’re not focused on what’s right in front of you, which is a dangerous wild animal,” Vogel says. It’s a recipe for impulsive decision-making.

DIVORCED FROM NATURE

When it comes to animal encounters, reckless decisions can put the animal’s safety at risk as well. Zoo animals often must be killed to protect the person who’s entered their space, like Harambe, the 17-year old gorilla who was shot in 2015 at the Cincinnati zoo when a young boy fell in his enclosure.

Often, thrill-seekers actively imperil the lives of animals. Just last week, a video showed a man jumping off a Florida harbor platform onto a wild pelican’s back. The video shows the pelican struggling to get away as onlookers laugh. In 2015, a video went viral that showed a man jumping on the back of a female moose as she swam across a lake in British Columbia, Canada.

The common factor in these incidents, says Clayton, the psychology and environmental studies professor, is that people are not respecting the sentience of the animal. “The zoo environment can encourage the perspective that [animals] are there for us,” she says.

It’s often in childhood when people learn to either objectify animals or to treat them with respect, she says, depending on the education that they have. At the zoo, “a parent can point and laugh at a bear and say, ‘Doesn’t he look stupid?’ Or you can use the zoo experience as a way to teach children about respecting animals.”

And about those dangerous selfie impulses: When you’re by a tiger cage, Vogel says, resist the urge to do something foolish for a photo. “Your selfie doesn’t have to be all or nothing.”