Virtual brutality—The cruel online world of animal atrocities

From live-animal smugglers to rare body-part merchants, puppy farmers to underground hunters—there’s a wild worldwide web of nastiness going on behind your computer screen, but thanks to a new app, you can help do something about it.

The modern magic of social media gives us connectivity to entire communities at the swipe of a screen or click of a button. Now, people with similar interests, passions and proclivities can congregate and communicate remotely—no matter how far distant from each other they may be geographically—to chat, share knowledge, swap ideas, show-off images and trade tips, tricks and possessions. And that’s great. Up to a point.

Unfortunately, our species being what it is, not everyone operating online is engaged in entirely edifying activities. For example, individuals and organisations looking to profit from the unethical, unregulated and often illegal sale of live animals have not been slow to recognise the potential reach social media platforms can offer them, and are enthusiastically exploiting the digital domain, which remains a problematic place to properly police.

At Love Nature, we recently reported how the wildlife monitoring network Traffic had just exposed the terrible trade in endangered indigenous creatures in Malaysia, where wild animals spanning nearly 150 native species—including sun bears, gibbons, otters and binturong (bearcats)—were illegally being offered for sale as pets on Facebook sites.

Thanks to the intervention of Malaysia’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks, the offending pages were swiftly shut down by Facebook, and the perpetrators are now being investigated by law enforcers. But sadly, when you begin to delve deeper into the issue of online animal crime, you quickly discover that this is only the very tip of a deeply chilling iceberg.

‘The internet has without a doubt facilitated the huge expansion of illegal international wildlife trading over the last decade,’ Traffic’s senior director of wildlife crime, Crawford Allan, told The Guardian back in 2012. ‘Rare jewels of the forest can now be caught, boxed and shipped almost overnight just like any other express commodity.’

Trade in rare dead animal parts such as elephant ivory and polar bear pelts—not to mention ingredients for traditional medicines ranging from saiga horns to shark fins and bits of big cats including bones, eyeballs, brains and even penises—can be conducted with almost complete impunity by savvy internet-based operators.

Some of these wildlife criminals operate in the seriously shady realms of the so-called ‘Deep Web’, utilising anonymous and uncatalogued corners of darknet typically associated with child pornography, drugs, terrorism and other such unsavoury activity. And this is big business. Even four years ago the global illegal wildlife trade was estimated to be worth at least £5 billion, and a more recent report by UK think-tank Chatham House said demand and supply was rising at an ‘alarming rate’.

But it’s not just exotic animals that fall victim to unscrupulous, unethical and unregulated online businesses and behaviours. In the UK, the RSPCA recently revealed how much of their resources are now being spent on dealing with problems that begin online. Puppy farming is the classic example. The RSPCA say that almost 90% of calls they receive about puppy issues now involve cases where the animals were bought on the Internet, with the web providing unscrupulous traders with an easy and convenient way of selling the young dogs.

According to the society’s Scrap the Puppy Trade campaign manager, Ari Winfield: ‘Legislation has failed to keep up with the radical changes in how puppies have been bred and sold in the past few decades, particularly given the growing popularity of internet sales.

‘The internet is a huge part of modern life, and can also be a valuable asset in terms of promoting animal rescue and rehoming. It can be a great platform for rescue organisations and responsible breeders to find good homes for dogs. But the web also provides the perfect marketplace for unscrupulous breeders and dealers to advertise puppies without arousing suspicion. And traders are finding clever and cunning ways to fool not only the buyers, but also the websites themselves.’

Even more disturbing than all this, however, is the role the internet plays in the organisation of deliberate cruelty to animals. The web provides a murky meeting place for groups of erstwhile strangers who have a common denominator in that they get a buzz from inflicting pain and suffering on animals. These people engage and brag about practises such as dog fighting and illegal hunting methods like lamping, where wild animals are lured and then stunned into a frozen state of stillness by bright lights, before being blasted by a bullet from someone who thinks what they’re doing is a form of sport.

You might think such behaviour would be rare, with people engaged in illegal activities like dog fighting and badger baiting preferring to keep their movements under the radar. But you’d be wrong. There is a highly active community of killers and animal abusers out there. And they’re only a mouse-click away from where you’re sitting right now.

Illustration by Federico De Cicco /
Illustration by Federico De Cicco /

In September 2014, the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS) became so concerned about growing levels of such online activity—the horrors of which were being regularly reported to them by members and supporters—that they initiated a special investigation to try and discover how extensive it really was, and determine whether anything could be done about it. The results were horrifying.

Volunteers for LACS trawled through thousands of sickening images of injured and dead animals on various social media sites. They found multiple Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Bebo accounts dedicated to death, some with names that made their brutal intent quite blatant, such as ‘I love to kill foxes’, ‘Hunting 4 Life’ and ‘Lamping & Digging’, and others with less obvious titles, like ‘Working Terriers’ and ‘Digging Terriers’.

Pages promoting many forms of cruelty were exposed, but the report produced by LACS in August 2015 unearthed a particularly large amount of evidence about ‘Underground hunting’, sometimes euphemistically referred to as ‘terrier work’. These pursuits see men (and it is mostly men, although some women were identified in the process of compiling the report) sending terrier breeds of dog—such as Jack Russell, Border, Lakeland, Bedlington, Plummer, Patterdale and Fell—into rabbit warrens, fox holes and badger sets, to locate and flush out quarry animals, or simply to fight and kill them where they are found.

The report found that people involved in such hunts would sometimes come to the assistance of their dogs, but often simply revel in the thrill of the fight. These violent encounters typically result in a horrific death for the animal being pursued, but the dogs too are often severely injured in the process. To avoid detection, owners will commonly attempt to perform DIY medical procedures on their maimed animals, which can often lead to infection and increased levels of scarring. LACS even report coming across commercials printed in Countryman’s Weekly magazine advertising ‘Skin Staplers’ for ‘repairing small cuts and tears. Ideal for working dogs.’

The RSPCA, the League Against Cruel Sports and Traffic are among many concerned organisations strongly recommending closer collaboration between law enforcement agencies and social media outlets, to enable effective targeting of offenders. The operators of social media outlets are also being implored to do more to raise awareness about the issue, and to establish ways to prevent people from simply opening up new groups and pages promoting cruel practises as soon as one is identified and shut down.

But there is a bit of a silver lining amid all this bloody horror. The digital revolution has empowered people too, and concerned citizens who abhor the actions of their fellow man towards animals can now take effective online action to draw attention to cruel or illegal practises. Just this week, conservationists launched a worldwide campaign asking the public to help tackle the illegal trade in wildlife, and they’ve developed a smartphone app to assist in the fight. The app—Wildlife Witness, which was conceived by Taronga Conservation Society Australia in partnership with Traffic—enables people to immediately report examples of suspicious animal products being sold wherever they see them.

A network of zoos, including Chester, is getting involved in the campaign, because they have access to large audiences of animal lovers who they can promote it to.’Rather than us just saying “Look at this, isn’t it terrible?” this campaign allows people to download the app and actually be involved and take action,’ Scott Wilson, head of field programmes at Chester Zoo, told the BBC.

“If people are travelling, or are on holiday, and they are walking through the markets and they see something—say a baby sun bear that should not be there, or ivory on sale that they suspect is illegal—they can record it with this app and the data goes straight to Traffic.

‘This will really boost the amount of information that is coming through to them, and this helps them to identify trends in wildlife trade and—more importantly—they can use that data to try to influence the enforcement policies and the really big changes that need to take place.’

Chris Shepherd, Traffic’s South-East Asia regional director, says there has been an ‘unparalleled spike in illegal wildlife trade’ in recent years.  ‘Sadly, animals are being illegally killed or taken from the wild around the world to be sold for traditional medicines, luxury food, horns or other parts, restaurant dishes, fashion items or pets,’ he explained.

But Shepherd believes this new app, and the campaign behind it, has potential to yield real results. ‘We want people to be the eyes and ears in the fight against the illegal wildlife trade,’ he said.