Back in February 2009, YouTube user Dmitry Sergeyev posted a video of a woman tickling a slow loris, an endangered primate originating from Southeast Asia.
Despite the fact that slow lorises could be potentially fatal to humans upon contact, the 57-second video titled “And Now… At Last – Sonya!!!! (Slow Loris)” became a viral sensation, more so when Wired.com posted it on their YouTube channel a few months later. It had been shared by celebrities like Ricky Gervais and Drake, which fueled its virality.
While the viral video may be simultaneously cute and heartwarming, it poses a disturbing social media trend that could threaten the species’ existence.
According to a study posted on Plos One titled “Tickled to Death: Analysing Public Perceptions of ‘Cute’ Videos of Threatened Species (Slow Lorises – Nycticebus spp.) on Web 2.0 Sites,” the popularity of the “tickling” video is encouraging vendors to exploit the slow lorises as pets. They are considered one of the 25 most endangered primates in the world could be sold for as little as $15.
The introduction to the study states: “Slow loris videos that have gone viral have introduced these primates to a large cross-section of society that would not normally come into contact with them…Celebrity endorsement of videos showing protected wildlife increases visits to such sites, but does not educate about conservation issues.”
The study’s authors tracked the virality of the “Sonya” video from the moment Wired.com posted Sergeyev’s video in June 2009 until February 2012, when Wired.com removed the video from its YouTube channel. They studied more than 12,000 comments posted in relation to the video.
The authors pointed out that in its initial phase, the “Sonya” video was positively viewed in the comments sections, but as time passed, many of the comments became critical, suggesting that many understood the dangerous effects of owning slow lorises. Another factor to the video’s eventual negative reaction was the widespread exploitation of the species, including the forcible removal of their teeth.
In their conclusion, the authors stated: “The strong desire of commentators to express their want for one as a pet demonstrates the need for Web 2.0 sites to provide a mechanism via which illegal animal material can be identified and policed.”
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