In a video that recently circulated on Twitter, a doe walks toward the viewer across a grassy lawn. The videographer, a young woman, holds out her hand, gingerly turning it over and offering it to the animal. The deer folds her ears and moves gently forward, appearing to approach out of curiosity. A split second later, the doe suddenly rears up, striking forward with sharp hooves as the woman fumbles the camera, turning to run.
The lesson, if the internet was at all interested in learning it: In the wild, animals don’t act like they do in Disney movies.
But it’s not just Disney movies that give people the wrong ideas about interacting with wildlife. Kelvin Peña, who goes by the handle Brother Nature has achieved a degree of online fame from his viral videos with wild deer. In the videos, he talks to the animals casually, giving them names and offering them carrots and bananas.
Peña’s videos have an unmistakable charm and unique humor that probably helps explain his rise, like the time he nicknamed a deer he sees frequently “Canela, the thickest doe in the woods.”
Peña has 2.4 million Twitter followers, 2.7 million Instagram followers, a line of merchandise, and a foundation dedicated to feeding underprivileged humans. He doesn’t generally show animals taking a violent disinterest in his gestures, but in one video he does sustain a fierce-looking bite from a penguin.
Peña has become so popular among people who interact with wildlife in irresponsible ways that they regularly tag him when posting about keeping animals illegally, like one Twitter user who mostly kept quiet about a pet raccoon “to avoid the chances of him getting taken away from me.”
When the raccoon died, he tagged Peña in his viral post. The woman who was struck by the deer tagged him too.
Given the wild popularity of accounts like Peña’s, wildlife experts are concerned that influencers’ obsession with approaching wild animals could endanger followers who might imitate what they see.
THE SELFIE CODE
Siobhan Speiran, an author of a study examining social media, selfie culture, and wild animals, believes that social media users like Brother Nature can directly influence behavior among their followers. Speiran encourages anyone posting online to follow the wildlife selfie code, a set of common-sense rules about interacting with wild animals. The problem is so widespread that Instagram even has community guidelines to anyone posting wild animal selfies.
Beyond individuals, the bad behavior creates a market. To feed the demand for animal selfies, tourism centers have been caught kidnapping sloths and other animals so they can charge tourists for a picture. The phenomenon even prompted National Geographic to publish a cover story investigating deadly wildlife tourism.
A variety of other organizations have acknowledged the danger of using wild animals for social media. According to a report produced by the animal welfare organization World Animal Protection, a major “culprit” of exploitative wildlife tourism in the Amazon is the “growing popularity of wildlife selfies.” The report details how these animals are often stolen from their native environments, removed from their parents as babies, stressed out during selfie sessions, and kept in inhumane, cramped conditions between tourism sessions.
On the human side, it’s no secret that extreme selfie-seeking can prove fatal and animal encounters account for many of those incidents. In 2016, a walrus at a zoo in China’s Shandong Province drowned a selfie-taking visitor and a zookeeper who tried to rescue him. In India, an injured bear mauled another man to death as he tried to take a picture with it. In 2018, BBC News reported that 60 people in Orissa, India had died from elephant attacks, at least several of which were photo-related.
According to the World Animal Protection report, wildlife selfies posted on Instagram increased by nearly 300 percent between 2014 and 2017. The organization considers 40 percent of those selfies to be inappropriate or dangerous, with people getting too close, touching, or feeding the animals.
Feeding wildlife is not a new issue. In the 1970’s, feeding wild animals at National Parks was considered harmless fun, and even encouraged. Now, National Parks warn that “a fed bear is a dead bear,” insisting that visitors keep a respectful and safe distance from all large animals. Park staff commission bear-proof cans so the wildlife can’t eat trash left behind by humans. Feeding wildlife is now simply condemned in the conservation community. (Controversially, it’s still legal in many states to feed the wildlife as long as you’re doing it for hunting purposes.)
When people feed wild animals, animals stop thinking of humans as a threat to be avoided, but as food sources. They can forget how to find food in their natural habitat, relying on humans and even becoming aggressive. If animal behavior takes that turn, sometimes the animal suffers the ultimate price.
In one viral video that resurfaces on the internet regularly, an elk headbutts a sitting photographer. Park officials said that the animal had lost its fear of humans due to feeding—”a problem waiting to happen.” As the video went viral, they decided there was no other option but to protect humans from its unnatural fearlessness and they killed the elk. A bear in Oregon suffered the same fate when it became popular among selfie-takers.
In spite of all the bad behavior, Speiran stresses that the issue of selfies with wild animals is a cultural one, and it would be unfair to blame Brother Nature or other individuals for a broader phenomenon.
Alexis Grousis-Henderson, an animal keeper at the Audubon Nature Institute, agrees. Still, both experts suggest that influencers like Peña can and should be more responsible with their followers.
“He clearly loves wildlife,” Grousis-Henderson said of Peña. “And I wish that would translate a little bit more with how he shows that love.” That could include adding disclaimers to videos and showing what animals really eat in the wild rather than feeding them unhealthy quantities of fruits and other sugary foods.
Spieran also notes that bigger organizations can, and often do, do more to protect animals from human engagement. “NGOs, the government and parks authorities, as well as the really really big organizations, tourism boards, and more more ethical wildlife encounters” have made strides, she says, and can continue to educate and enforce responsible interactions. Beyond Instagram, travel companies like TripAdvisor and Intrepid have taken strides to minimize harm from those seeking to interact with wildlife in unsafe ways.
If you’re still set on making viral wildlife content but don’t want to get cancelled for animal abuse, consider the rules from the “Wildlife Selfie Code.” If you encounter a wild animal that isn’t restrained, baited with food, or a potential danger to either party, go for it.