TikTok has an exotic animal problem

TikTok is a place where owners of exotic animals — including slow loris like this

TikTok is a place where owners of exotic animals — including slow loris like this one, as well as marmoset monkeys, servals, and raccoons — can show them off to the world. <p class="copyright">Mas Agung Wilis/NurPhoto via Getty Images</p>
TikTok is a place where owners of exotic animals — including slow loris like this one, as well as marmoset monkeys, servals, and raccoons — can show them off to the world.

  • TikTok is filled with accounts showing off exotic animals that aren’t typically house-trained, like servals, foxes, raccoons, and kinkajous.

  • Vets and animal experts tell Insider that it’s led to some people acquiring those pets without knowing what they’re getting into.

  • While exotic animals can seem tame as children, they can become harder to control once they hit puberty.

  • In the best-case scenario, the animals need to be given up. In the worst-case, owners could get hurt and animals can die without proper care.

  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

In January, Felicia Wilson posted a short video of herself and her African serval named Juno. It was only her second TikTok, but the video of the wild cat holding on to her shoulders and nuzzling her head quickly racked up thousands of views. She posted another video two days later of her second serval, Asha, leaping across a room. That one accumulated more than 2 million views.

Today, Wilson has more than half a million TikTok followers and is one of many accounts famous for exotic animal content.

TikTok users love animal videos. Dogs and cats proliferate, but so do videos of exotic animals like big cats and primates, as well as non-traditional pets like raccoons and squirrels. Some of the most popular exotic pet accounts, like @TheWhiteRedFox and @OstrichPlug, have millions of followers.

Wilson never set out to be TikTok-famous. She’s an animal transporter licensed by the US Department of Agriculture and frequently works with exotic animals. Juno and Asha were both rescued from abusive owners.

“I figured, you know what, it’d be nice to let the world know what I do for a living,” Wilson told Insider. “I don’t just transport, I also do rescues, as well. And then home checks because there are a lot of exotics. You can’t control who buys exotic animals.”

It wasn’t long before people commented on Wilson’s videos asking where and how to get servals. She started to include educational videos on diet and proper care and emphasized in comments and videos that these are not normal pets. It’s advice that the owners of other exotic animal accounts contacted for this story say they give, as well.

But it isn’t easy to convey a complex message in a viral TikTok, and veterinarians and wildlife experts say TikTok’s popular animal videos could send the wrong message.

Animals could get hurt — and so can owners

In the best-case scenario, unprepared owners surrender their animals. In the worst case, the owner ends up hurt or the animal dies.

The latter happened to the animal of another popular fox account, @tod_the_foxx, which has 1.9 million followers on TikTok. The owner regularly posted information on fox rescue care alongside videos of Tod in his cage and on walks.

Then in May, the fox was diagnosed with kidney failure and died shortly after. The owner of Tod’s Instagram wrote a post about his death that in part blames a veterinarian the owner says didn’t diagnose Tod sooner.

“The safety of our community is our top priority, animals included,” a TikTok spokesperson told Insider. “Our community makes many great videos showing the joys of life with a pet, and values protecting against the mistreatment of animals. We don’t allow content that shows harmful behavior or treatment of animals, and our actions on any such content include removing a video, suspending an account, and working with law enforcement.”

Getting the right vet for an uncommon pet is hard enough in big cities, according to Rebecca Greenstein, veterinary medical advisor for Rover and chief veterinarian at Kleinburg Veterinary Hospital in Toronto. And it’s nearly impossible outside of them.

“Take that to a rural area and the likelihood of finding someone with experience and the necessary equipment is almost zero,” Greenstein told Insider.

Owners can put themselves at risk, as well. Animals will sometimes scratch or bite a person’s hands or face, as noted in a video posted by the @tod_the_foxx account. In more serious instances, people need professional medical help. That happened in Wisconsin when a woman was bit by a lemur, as well as to a police officer trying to catch a pet fox wearing a collar, also in Wisconsin. In the latter case, the fox was put down.

Evan Antin, an exotic animal vet at Conejo Valley Veterinary Hospital, told Insider that the No. 1 issue among exotic animal patients is that their owners don’t know how to properly care for them.

Social media “encourages people to acquire these pets, often impulsively, without doing sufficient research on the proper care for these animals,” he told Insider.

While wildlife animals can be cute and harmless when they’re young, Antin said, they — like humans — can become much harder to control when they hit puberty.

“As they develop and their sexual hormones elevate, they can become completely different animals, and at that stage can also be very dangerous,” Antin said.

Antin cites baby raccoons as an example. On TikTok, a community of raccoon owners posts under the hashtag #TrashPanda, where you’ll find raccoons described as a “handful” alongside videos of pet raccoons playing on a trampoline.

But while raccoons are “harmless and absolutely adorable” when young, Antin said, they can “seriously injure people or themselves in a captive setting” as adults. 

Young primates are easier to manage when they’re upset, but are much harder to manage when they’re larger and stronger. Videos that show animal attacks or people hurting animals violate TikTok’s community guidelines. Some less serious videos of raccoons and squirrels biting people are still posted. Videos of more serious bites stay up with a disclaimer, as in a video of a captive lizard injuring someone’s hand.

TikTok isn’t exactly the best place to teach people how to take care of exotic animals

For every licensed animal handler on TikTok looking to educate viewers, there are scores of others posting for clout (or money from product placements.)

There are TikTok accounts that feature notoriously difficult kinkajous — a nocturnal tree-dwelling mammal found in South American rainforests — as well as plenty of primates. Some accounts feature the slow loris, an animal threatened by the illegal animal trade, while others post videos of pet pygmy marmosets eating spaghetti.

People who see entertaining animal videos could be influenced into getting their own without doing the proper research, the animal experts in this story said. 

One of the biggest problems, according to Stephanie Mantilla, a trainer with Curiosity Trained who worked as a zookeeper for 12 years, is that people who come to TikTok are ready to be entertained. They’re on the app to watch animals do cute and funny things. They aren’t necessarily ready to take in ownership information, which can otherwise be hard to find.

“We have a culture where we see someone else doing something and we think, ‘oh if they’re doing it, I can do it too,'” Mantilla told Insider.

The exotic animal trade is also difficult to track and contain. Ownership laws vary by state, so the people who post exotic animals and wildlife often aren’t breaking the law. In many cases, they can have the animals with little oversight at all.

“In rural areas, people may not even know someone has an exotic animal, so they go completely undetected,” Greenstein said. “Just outside of Toronto in 2012, we famously had the Ikea monkey and we’re still talking about it today. But no one would ever know that someone had a Japanese macaque had it not worn a corduroy jacket and escaped the car in an Ikea parking lot.”

Some users are taking the time to explain how exotic animal ownership works

The lack of online information is what originally led Troy Hoffman, owner of Lance Corporal, an American Red Fox going by @TheWhiteRedFox on TikTok, to post about how he raised his fox. 

Hoffman got Lance Corporal, and his Florida fox ownership license, three years ago. He posted photos and videos about day-to-day fox rearing on Facebook and Instagram before TikTok asked him to join the platform in 2018, Hoffman told Insider. He gained 1,000 followers in the first 24 hours. Today, the account has 1.7 million, and Hoffman continues to stress education.

Lance Corporal’s protein diet alone costs $60 a week, Hoffman said, and the fox often wakes up at 2 a.m. wanting to play. He requires a special litter box, and Hoffman made a video showing how to make one. The fox also pees when he gets excited, which smells like a musty locker room, and foxes poop where they eat.

“People get foxes and they don’t realize all this stuff that goes into it, and they become an owner-surrender fox,” Hoffman said. “And that’s where the real issue is. People are getting these exotics and not realizing there’s more than that one minute segment [on TikTok].”

Hoffman is a disabled veteran who has the space and time he feels is needed to care for Lance Corporal. His advice for his followers is simple: “Don’t keep a wild fox. Even a domesticated fox is hard enough.”

“People ask all the time, ‘what do I need to do to get a fox?’ and the first thing I tell them is if you’re looking to me for all the answers, you’re not going to be a good owner,” Hoffman said. “You need to do research on your own.”

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