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The problematic use of monkeys for social media content

A new report highlights that torture of monkeys has had over 12 million views on social media and calls for action to address it

An activist wearing a mask depicting a monkey face holds a poster during a protest against catching and trafficking long-tailed macaques, in front of the US embassy in Jakarta on 13 September, 2023.
An activist wearing a mask depicting a monkey face holds a poster during a protest against catching and trafficking long-tailed macaques, in front of the US embassy in Jakarta on 13 September, 2023. (AFP)

A new report highlights that the violent and graphic torture of Macaques, a type of monkey, has had over 12 million views on social media sites including Facebook, YouTube, TikTok and Instagram. Now, this problematic practice is now part of online entertainment with social media clout chasers keeping monkeys as pets, and using them to monetise their views and subscribers.  

For the report, released by Asia for Animals Social Media Animal Cruelty Coalition (SMACC) last week, a sample of 1,266 videos and photos posted on social media depicting macaques kept as pets were analysed from September 2021 to March 2023. The data was compiled in collaboration between 20 animal protection organisations, and documents evidence of people abusing macaques on social media content. 

Worryingly, 35% of the macaques species that were recorded are endangered, and 53% are categorised as vulnerable, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

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Macaques are a group of closely related monkey species who share certain characteristics and a relatively recent (on an evolutionary scale) common ancestor, the report explains. They are one of the most targeted primate groups for trade purposes. Macaque exploitation places their populations at risk by significantly reducing their numbers, harming individual monkeys who are separated from families and kept in cages while depriving them of food and a suitable environment, and also places humans at risk of zoonotic diseases.

The findings showed that 13% of the surveyed content features deliberate psychological torture wherein macaques were made to feel fear and distress by scaring, teasing and denying them food. In 12% of the content, macaques were physically tortured, including being beaten, burnt alive, limbs amputated and many of them tortured until death. All the macaques in the surveyed links were likely to experience psychological distress caused by their treatment with 60% of the links showing pet macaques being directly physically abused. The top three platforms with the most content featuring macaques as pets were Facebook (60%), YouTube (24%), and TikTok (13%).

The report calls out popular videos where monkeys are kept in homes, dressed in clothes or wearing diapers. Some of these videos have got millions of views with people calling it “cute,” while the macaques suffer long-lasting physical and psychological damage. Clothing macaques in dresses and shoes cause them discomfort and can limit their natural movements. In a video captioned “First day of school” on YouTube with four million views, a monkey is seen with a shirt, trousers, shoes, and a backpack. The struggle to walk and lean from side to side, the report found.

For such videos, infant macaques are separated from their parents and sold into the pet trade. This material and social deprivation can lead to severe psychological and emotional damage, including stress and behavioural issues. “Macaques may start to perform behaviours known as stereotypies, such as rocking, pacing and overgrooming. Infant macaques can often be seen sucking their fingers in social media content, a coping mechanism that helps them deal with separation and loss,” the report states.

Many of the pet macaques also don’t get the nutrition that they require, further deteriorating their physical health. As they grow up, many become aggressive due to isolation. space restriction and can injure their owners. This can result in their rehoming to sanctuaries or into the wild, where their survival chances are low.

The interest in watching videos of macaques could be attributed to the physical and behavioural similarities between humans and primates that could evoke a feeling of a connection, the report explains. Often macaques' expressions and behaviours are assumed to be of happiness or joy when in fact, they are in distress but humans lack an in-depth understanding of their gestures. These false understandings can lead to such content being considered entertaining instead of problematic.

One of the most concerning types of videos are fake rescue videos where macaques are shown in dire conditions, such as being stuck in objects and a person freeing them and taking them home. There are also videos where young baby macaques are on the brink of death or sometimes drugged and people are trying to resuscitate them. “Some of these baby macaques have clearly been starved, or roughly handled as they present with clear signs of injuries or illness,” the report states. The findings also reveal that 53 of the links analysed contain sexual abuse of macaques and deliberate physical torture is the second most common type of cruelty found in the study.

“Social media companies have the power to restrict creators that are benefitting off the exploitation and abuse of macaques. In fact, macaques kept as pets are suffering by the very nature of being kept as a pet, as they are not a domesticated species. We urge social media companies to introduce key policies to restrict exploitative content creators, moderate content, and educate users on why wild animals such as macaques should not be kept as pets,” Bharati Ramachandran, chief executive officer of Federation of Indian Animals Protection Organisations (FIAPO) said in a press release about the report.

SMACC warns that by liking, commenting and sharing this content, people might be unintendedly supporting their abuse. Social media companies need to acknowledge and address this problem, the report emphasises. While the platform has some animal-related policies, they are limited and often poorly implemented. The organisation is also calling for social media platforms to restrict content that shows macaques as pets.

Also read: Entire branches of 'Tree of Life' are going extinct, warn scientists

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