Humans have probably always had a propensity towards bugging wildlife, but today’s selfie-culture could be pushing things too far.
Seen that startled sea otter video floating around the Internet a little while ago? Well it might not seem like it, the person waking this sound-asleep otter was actually breaking the law—not just in the United States where it was filmed, but in many countries worldwide.
Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, sea otters are legally shielded against harassment—the general slew of activities that could interfere with or alter their natural behaviour, explains James MacCracken, Walrus and Sea Otter Program Supervisor with the Alaskan office of the US Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS).
‘Poking a sleeping sea otter—startling it and causing it to submerge and deep dive to flee—definitely falls under that category,’ he says. Alaska is home to the bulk of the remaining worldwide sea otter population. It’s also the suspected locale of the viral clip.
USFWS issued a note explaining the potential problems with declaring the video ‘cute’. Sea otters don’t have the heat-trapping blubber common to other cold-water mammals, which means their survival comes down to their record-holding fur density, and an incredibly high metabolic rate. They need to eat at least a quarter of their body weight a day—so catching up on their sleep with a surface snooze is very important.
MacCracken says from what he can see in the video, and assuming no one stuck around to bother the otter much longer or repeatedly, the animal in the footage was likely not horribly harmed. How much meetings like this disturb an animal really varies, but that isn’t really the point.
‘A lot of people are unaware of the rules and laws in place to prevent these kind of encounters, but on the flipside a lot of people are fully aware and avoid situations like this when they can,’ he says. ‘This sort of issue has likely always been a problem, but today there’s a lot more equipment in more hands, putting both people and wildlife in dangerous situations.’
People’s selfie-pursuits and the onslaught of user-friendly technology like GoPro cameras and smartphones are changing the scope of the problem. This summer parks in Colorado closed because of the frequency of bear-selfies showing up on social media, and a few people suffered some nasty injuries after getting too up close and personal with bison. In September, Costa Rican tourists were so eager to snap shots with nesting sea turtles they prevented many from laying eggs.
If you want to make sure your animal sightings are safe for everyone involved, there are some basics to keep in mind. The first thing is to maintain a safe distance, in the case of the otter, 50ft is recommended. Following, chasing, or tracking subjects down is a big no-no. And obviously, keep things hands off.
Feeding wildlife is also not advised, and walking parallel as opposed to directly towards animals is best. Pets should be kept on leashes, and critter’s homes, dens and nests should be off limits. Trying to avoid repeat visits to the same animal’s territory is a kind consideration too.