What These Deadly Selfies Say About Our Weird Desire to Get Close to Wild Animals

Experts say a desire to be close to nature overwhelms our understanding of safe behavior—leading to the death of people and wildlife.
(Photo: Instagram)
Jun 23, 2016· 3 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

The photos, or the stories behind them, are horrifying.

Last week a group of lifeguards and tourists in the Dominican Republic pulled a shark from the water and posed for photos with it until it died.

It was just the latest in a disturbing new trend of people trying to take selfies with a wide variety of wildlife, ranging from seals and swans to elk and even lions.

Sometimes, as in the case of the shark, the animals die as a result of these interactions. Other times people put themselves at risk. Last month a Chinese man died while trying to take a selfie with a walrus at a zoo. A year ago—long before the infamous case in which tourists put a bison calf in their car—a visitor to Yellowstone National Park was gored and tossed into the air by an adult bison while she tried to pose for a photo just six yards away from the massive animal.

What drives this risky behavior?

Part of it, it seems, is just human nature. “I think we’re drawn to what’s left of wilderness,” said Margo DeMello, program director for human-animal studies at the Animals and Society Institute. “We have a desire to feel close to wildlife and wild animals.”

Unfortunately, she said, modern society has left us detached from the reality of how wild animals live and behave. “Other than pets, we’re very disconnected from animals in our lives,” she said. “We don’t spend a lot of time near and around animals the way our ancestors did.”

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Even our beloved pets don’t fill our need, DeMello said. “I think a lot of people see domesticated animals as not ‘real animals.’ They’re a little bit less than animals because of that domestication and because they’re so common.” At the same time, pets habituate us to the idea that we can touch and pick up animals, but that doesn’t quite satisfy our desires. “A koala or a shark or a penguin is just so much closer to nature and that thing we lack,” she said.

Adam Roberts, chief executive of Born Free USA, said most people possess “a profound affinity for wild animals” but noted that the modern world does not fulfill that in a helpful way. “Zoo exhibits, barbarous circus acts, and the ready availability of exotic animals as ‘pets’ and television performers all dramatically desensitize people to animals’ very wildness,” he said. Numerous studies have shown that seeing animals in commercials and other entertainment contexts disconnects people from the idea that species have wild behaviors.

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This innate passion for animals and our lack of daily connection to them are a dangerous combination. “The desire to be close to animals, the opportunities to do so—plus the misguided, trusting belief that it must be safe—results in people taking massive, dangerous risks for a mere photo opportunity,” Roberts said.

This hazardous behavior may be enhanced by social networking and the need for “likes,” clicks, and shares. “We’re in this highly self-promotional social media age where we need to not just document everything we do but place ourselves into it as a way to document the experience and share it with others,” DeMello said. Indeed, many recent wildlife selfies have gone viral, something that may inspire other people to take similar risks.

DeMello said most people really do know better, but the sight of wild animals creates a cognitive dissonance between the desire to be close to them and the understanding of how they should be treated. “We know that certain things are better for animals—not pulling a shark out of the ocean, for example—and yet that competes with that desire to be close and near. The desire overwhelms our sense of what’s OK, and we don’t even think about it or realize it anymore,” she said.

One element affecting that is that people tend to ignore posted warning signs or instructions not to interact with animals. “I think a lot of people feel like they know better,” DeMello said. “They feel, maybe the people who wrote the sign don’t know enough or don’t care enough.”

That, in a way, helps to justify grabbing an animal in the wild, even when it ends in tragedy. “We have to justify that to ourselves in some way so that we don’t feel bad,” DeMello said. “Nobody wants to be a killer.”

Unfortunately, these behaviors may only get worse. “I think it’s going to continue as we get more urbanized and isolated from the world outside of us,” she said.

Is there a solution? DeMello isn’t sure. “I think we’ve got to acknowledge that this is part of us, and then figure out a way to provide that extra layer of education that acknowledges that people aren’t going to want to stop reaching out and touching and grabbing,” she said.

Until then, she said, publicizing the stories with bad endings may be the most effective way to get across to people that they shouldn’t put an animal, or themselves, at risk for the sake of a selfie.