Environment Blog

What happens when wild animals become social media sensations?

Wildlife celebrities are becoming more common. Whether this harms or helps conservation depends on how we engage with these critters’ stories online

September 18, 2023
An illustration of an owl as a popular social media post
Flaco the owl, an escaped owl from the Central Park Zoo, has thousands of admirers on social media. [Credit: Alice Sun, created with Canva]

At the beginning of the year, I made the pilgrimage from Brooklyn to the north end of Central Park to see Flaco, the Eurasian eagle-owl who escaped from the Central Park Zoo. For months, he graced my Twitter (now called X) feed with his orange eyes and wispy ear tufts. And, like many, I had fallen in love with this bird and his story: his daring escape. His struggling first days. His comeback as a rat-catching predator after a lifetime in captivity. 

When I finally saw Flaco high up in a tree, he seemed content, hooting while sleepily gazing at his admirers below. But as I stood amid the crowds of people with binoculars and cameras, I felt uneasy with all the spectacle. I wondered, is it bad for me, and for all these people, to fawn over an animal like this? To get emotionally attached to a creature we barely know?

My concern stems from my background as a wildlife biologist. Scientists have long warned of the dangers of anthropomorphism — when we attribute human traits to animals — because it prevents us from seeing the natural world in an objective way. They argue this may lead to an inaccurate understanding of animals and how we should interact with them. For instance, some Flaco fans created a petition to advocate for his continued freedom. Over a thousand supporters have signed.

Ornithologists criticized this frenzy as short-sighted; it exposes the bird to fatal dangers like rodenticide-laced rats and normalizes an invasive predator in Central Park. But Flaco’s fame may actually help. He has been an ambassador for the other raptors of Central Park, getting more people interested in urban wildlife. And recent evidence suggests that anthropomorphism isn’t all that bad. In fact, it may be important to embrace emotional attachments to wildlife because it incentivizes people to care, thus helping conservation in the long run.

“Scientists are having this awakening over the past several years where they’re like, oh crap, values matter and people matter,” says Christine Wilkinson, a conservation scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. “And I think that that’s a hard pill to swallow, especially for scientists who are taught that everything we do is about being objective.”

When we look at history, we see that humans have long used stories and anthropomorphism to understand our relationships with animals. Native American stories, such as the tale of how the muskrat dredged up mud to create the world, play a role in shaping the relationship between wildlife and Indigenous communities. Films such as Disney’s blockbuster “Bambi” molded the zeitgeist around wilderness and hunting. And growing research shows that stories like these influence our beliefs, actions and policies far more than scientific knowledge.

More recently, social media has surfaced as a driver of wildlife narratives. Take the sloth, for example. Viral videos have sparked new interest in this otherwise ignored species. Actress Kristin Bell professed her love for the slow tree-dwelling mammals with her famous 2012 meltdown on the Ellen Show, which then inspired a wave of “sloth love” and raised funds for conservation, says environmental historian Peter Boger. Octopuses are another wildlife cultural obsession, he adds, with documentaries like “My Octopus Teacher” and books such as “Remarkably Bright Creatures” revealing the intelligence of these clever marine animals. These works raise questions including whether it’s okay for us to eat octopuses, or more generally, how we should interact with them.

“I don’t think people would have cared about it before in quite the same way, or had positive feelings, until you get these kinds of media narratives,” Boger says.

In science, researchers have also seen how naming a study animal and building a story around it can birth a conservation movement. A recent example is P-22, a lone mountain lion that frequented Griffith Park in Los Angeles. With a massive following of dedicated fans, his fame helped drive funding for the Wallis Annenberg wildlife crossing, the largest connectivity project of its kind. But P-22’s story is an exceptional example. 

“That’s like the golden goose of how narrative could help,” says Wilkinson, who featured P-22’s story in a recent Nature correspondence. Not all stories can fund a $90 million project. More commonly, Wilkinson says anthropomorphizing wildlife can help conservation by bolstering something called “sense of place:” people feeling connected to their local landscapes. And sense of place is a key tenant in environmental education. Studies have shown that having this sense, especially at a young age, encourages people to make more environmentally friendly decisions later in life. As Wilkinson puts it, connecting and empathizing with wildlife in your neighborhood can make you more likely to recycle, plant pollinator gardens or support local conservation initiatives in the future.

Anthropomorphized narratives, however, can sometimes spiral out of control — putting both wildlife and people in danger. Freya, a walrus who was known for sinking boats around Europe, was euthanized after hoards of selfie-taking fans kept getting too close to her. Carl, a beloved neighborhood coyote in San Francisco, was shot dead late last year because he became habituated to humans and frequently approached toddlers. In these cases, storytelling went awry because there is a “big disjunct between what we’re seeing on social media, what people are talking about the most, and the human-wildlife interactions that people are actually having,” says Jordanna Bergman, a conservation scientist and aquatic ecologist at Carleton University.

The disconnect between narrative and reality occurs because information on social media spreads incredibly fast — and is often oversimplified or misleading, Boger explains. “The opportunity to kind of build narratives in parallel, I think, starts to diminish as we more rapidly meme, push, share, like, retweet, et cetera,” he says. 

But these negative incidents don’t completely offset anthropomorphism’s potential benefits. Instead, they should open up a conversation on when anthropomorphism is okay and when it isn’t, Wilkinson says. That’s why she’s thinking about creating a flowchart (as a follow-up to her Nature article) to help scientists decide when creating a narrative around an animal can help conservation — and when it could be dangerous.

We have a desire to connect with nature, to reach out and bond with it. It’s why we want to pet wild animals and take selfies with them, even when it’s not safe. But to really connect with animals, we need to understand their experiences as well, and that means understanding them beyond the stories we see on social media. And that involves “incorporating them into our stories in a way that honors their reality,” Boger says.

It may be too early to tell whether Flaco’s story will go south or be a raging conservation success. But the many news articles about him (such as here, here and here) are likely a good sign. They mean that people are having discussions and considering several points of view. Flaco is not just a rogue owl on the lam from the zoo. He’s a bird trying to survive in a novel environment. He’s an emblem for Manhattan’s raptors, instilled in our hearts as his hoots echo through the city. 

About the Author

Alice Sun

Alice is a science writer and visual storyteller from the west coast of Canada. With a background in environmental biology and visual communication, she is passionate about ecology, conservation and their intersection with society. Her goal is to tell stories that bridge the disconnect between science and the public.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


The Scienceline Newsletter

Sign up for regular updates.