Screenshots of ‘fake animal rescue’ videos downloaded from YouTube. Videos were posted between September 2018 and July 2021, and screenshots taken between June and August 2021.
All but two of the videos included in the study had been removed by YouTube at the time of writing.

By Lauren Harrinton, Angie Elwin, Suzi Paterson, and Neil D’Cruze.

This Plain Language Summary is published ahead of the article discussed; check back soon for a link to the full paper.

There is an abundance of videos on YouTube showing people rescuing animals (domestic and wild) from a variety of predicaments (natural or otherwise). It is hard to tell, however, whether the scenes captured in these videos show people helping animals or putting them in greater peril. Currently, there is no external regulation of social media platforms and detection of inappropriate content is largely dependent on viewer reporting. The popularity of animal-rescue videos and lack of oversight raises concerns about animal welfare and conservation and we want to understand more about how viewers react to these videos.

To explore viewer responses to animal rescue videos, we used a set of 241 videos showing humans rescuing domestic and wild animals (dogs, cats, chickens, but also a monitor lizard and an adult crocodile). In these videos, people were rescuing the animals from attack by a predator (usually a python). This study is a case study to explore the response of viewers to these types of videos. Various aspects of the videos suggest that they are ‘fake’ and that they subject both the animal being attacked, and the attacking animal, to considerable stress. Only five of the videos had sufficient viewer comments for analysis, but these revealed that whilst some viewers clearly recognised the animal cruelty involved and the fake nature of the videos, others appeared to enjoy the videos, were impressed, and/or found them humorous. Two of the 22 wild species identified in the videos are considered to be Critically Endangered in the wild, yet none of the viewers referred to their threatened status (presumably due to lack of expert knowledge). None of the viewers questioned the legality of keeping these species as pets, or of using the animals for entertainment. Importantly, although all videos, received relatively few ‘likes’, they also received few ‘dislikes’. Some viewers suggested in the comments that these videos should be “reported” but there was little evidence that these videos would have been removed in the absence of external pressure.   

Our analysis of viewer response to fake ‘animal rescue’ videos on YouTube suggests that many viewers are either not aware of, or are unconcerned by, the animal welfare or conservation issues associated with these videos. In light of these results, we suggest that major social media companies need to do far more in terms of taking responsibility for the content they host on their platforms, ensuring that animals used in videos and posts are treated appropriately, to promote an appropriate relationship between wild animals and people.