A video of a people waking up a sleeping sea otter is going viral this week, with tens of thousands of views.
In reality, grabbing a sleeping sea otter like this is wildlife harassment, which, in addition to being illegal under two Federal laws, is extremely harmful to an endangered species with only a few thousand animals remaining in the wild.
Although many non-experts feel the need to argue with me on Twitter or Facebook, this is unequivocally a case of wildlife harassment as defined under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. Hell, even approaching a wild sea otter that closely without grabbing it would unequivocally be wildlife harassment. Don't just take my word for it, check out the US Fish and Wildlife Service's recent announcement about this video.
And although many non-experts feel the need to tell me that they don't personally see the harm, grabbing a sleeping sea otter can be a big problem. Otters need to spend much of their time resting or grooming their thick fur in order to stay warm.
"If a resting otter is harassed and forced to dive, the animal must expend additional energy to swim away only to begin grooming all over again, which takes away precious time it would otherwise have to rest or care for its young undisturbed," said Drew Wharton, the founder of SeaOtters.com, a public education partnership between several universities, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Monterrey Bay Aquarium. "Their daily energetic demands are challenging enough, but superimpose harassment on top of an already strenuous energy budget and it may be ultimately too much for the animals to overcome, making them more vulnerable to infection and disease, and increase the likelihood they abandon their pups as they aren't able to provide for them."
The sleeping otter is only the most recent example of what's become an online epidemic. Many photos and videos of wildlife harassment are shared and reported as "look at this cute/amazing animal" without any mention of the harmful (and often illegal) human behavior behind them. This is a major problem with sharks, with tons of "look at this giant fish someone caught in our town" stories that don't mention that it's illegal to kill that species, and tons of "look at how brave this person is for riding a shark" stories that don't mention that best practices are to leave the shark alone.
Don't glorify wildlife harassment
That picture of the frog holding the "umbrella" leaf in the rain that everyone thought was amazingly cute? Those frogs were likely badly injured by the photographer who posed them. Countless other viral wildlife photos may be the result of wildlife harassment or animal abuse. This is a big problem, and one that both journalists and readers like you play a role in perpetuating.
So what can you do to help? Don't glorify wildlife harassment. Don't share these viral videos that refer to an unnecessary, illegal and harmful practice as cute or funny, and point out the problems when your Facebook friends do it. Hopefully you personally are already not running up to and grabbing wild animals who are just trying to go about their business, but if you are, stop it immediately and have a good, hard think about your life choices. It's entirely possible to enjoy viewing wildlife from a safe, respectful distance. It's not that hard, even. Look but don't touch, take only pictures and leave only footprints, and other clichés are a pretty good strategy for wildlife viewing.