The animals get distracted and distressed. Oh, and you could get your head bitten off.
Humans view many animals as irresistibly cute, and probably have for millennia, but only in the last few years have they had a camera in their pockets to whip out and snap a photo of adorable animals whenever the opportunity arises. And only more recently have they wanted to stick their own heads in the picture, too. But this habit of taking wildlife selfies is in fact harmful to animals, and people should really stop doing it.
Professor Philip Seddon, director of a wildlife management program at Otago University, New Zealand, spoke at the International Penguin Conference last week and described the rise in wildlife selfies as "scary." When people chase after a photo with a wild animal, it can disrupt the animal's natural behavioral patterns, such as feeding or caring for young, and cause emotional stress that may not be visible, potentially affecting birth rates.While Seddon acknowledges that some selfies might be taken with a goal of promoting wildlife conservation, the problem is that many viewers on social media do not understand the context and may try to take their own. Because of this, he does not allow his students to take wildlife selfies while in the field.
Seddon made an interesting observation, cited in the Guardian, about the lack of connection that many people have these days to nature, which results in cluelessness about the innate behaviors of wild animals. (Yet another reason why you should send kids outside to play!) He said,
"We have an increasingly urbanised population around the world who are alienated from the natural world and whose access to wildlife is commodified and sanitised and made safe. So we’re seeing these very strange behaviours that seem weird to us as biologists – such as posing your child on a wild animal."
The Guardian article mentions a study conducted by World Animal Protection into the prevalence of wildlife selfies. It found a 29 percent increase in the number of selfies taken between 2014 and 2017, and 40 percent of images portrayed inappropriate interactions with the animals, i.e. hugging or holding. For example: "In New Zealand, tourists have been caught dancing with endangered sea lions for selfies, chasing rare yellow-eyed penguins, and trying to hug the shy and reclusive Kiwi bird."
Even the screen lights and flashes from cellphones, as well as the noise and movement of a crowd of observers, can be disconcerting and distressing to animals.
It's clear that much more education is needed to teach people about the safe distances that must be maintained between themselves and the wild animals they encounter, not only for their own safety, but also for that of the animals. Perhaps a campaign could be established similar to that of 'leave no trace,' except in this case it would be 'take no selfies' or, at the very least, 'never take a selfie while touching an animal.'