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Viral videos may harm cute animals, study shows

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 A globally-protected slow loris starred in a 2009 viral video that spurred demand for the creature in the illegal wildlife trade. (iStock)

Blasting out adorable YouTube clips may feel great -- both for those who send and receive them -- but a new study shows that sharing cute animal videos online may be doing more harm than good for the creatures who star in them.

A team of researchers from Oxford Brookes University in the U.K. recently determined that viral videos can in fact harm and even kill off threatened species by bolstering the illegal wildlife trade.

The study, called "Tickled to Death: Analysing Public Perceptions of 'Cute' Videos of Threatened Species," used a 2009 viral video of a pet pygmy slow loris from Russia to examine the impact social media plays upon how wildlife is perceived by the public.

By analyzing more than 12,000 comments posted in response to the video over a period of 33 months, researchers were able to draw a direct link between the protected primate's online popularity and demand for it as a pet on the black market.

Their findings and metholodogy were published in the open-access journal PLOS One, alongside data that shows the impact of celebrity video shares, and a second viral video published in 2011 on viewer demand for a pet loris

On average, one in 10 viewers who commented on the original video expressed a desire to find and own a slow loris -- a threatened nocturnal primate, traditionally found in the rainforests of Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand.

"I've been studying slow lorises for a long time and the video completely changed everything," said study lead author Anna Nekaris, a primatologist at Oxford Brookes to LiveScience. "Nobody knew what a loris was before the YouTube video, but now everybody knows them."

Legal and logistical issues aside, Nekaris notes that the business of capturing slow lorises and turning them into pets is a brutal one.

"Anyone who says they are breeding them are lying," Nekaris said. "We have skilled zoos that can't even breed them successfully." Instead, lorises must be captured by a trader, and being that they're venomous -- the only venomous primate on earth, in fact - the animals must have their teeth gruesomely removed before going to market.

"The slow loris video should have been taken down a long time ago because it's illegal," Nekaris said. "By not removing the video but removing others, YouTube is telling the public that this illegal, multibillion dollar industry is OK."

Does this study make you feel any differently about the videos you share online? Share your thoughts below.

Tags: pov

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