During the Christmas period I have had more time to scan various forms of social media for some of the things that interest me, including animal welfare. Over the past week, I have watched as a completely bizarre situation has played out which has demonstrated, not only the power of social media, but the risks of this power, especially when it is combined with emotive subjects such as animals being at risk of harm and ill treatment.
Being interestedi in animals and their impact on human mental health, including animal hoarding and rescuing I am concerned that a new abuse of both animals and people concerned for their welfare is developing through the form of social media.
One social media animal welfare hoax
Before Christmas a new page suddenly appeared on Facebook for a group purporting to be involved in reuniting lost equines and their owners. The focus quickly changed to animal welfare concerns and the group’s administrators began to describe a ‘rescue’ that was being planned in a county some two and a half hours drive away from them and that a ‘team’ was being sent out that night. A rescue of a number of horses had been previously undertaken in the identified locality the year before, during flooding, and was widely reported in the media.
The Facebook group administrators continued to describe the ‘rescue’, undertaken by their ‘team’, throughout the night via their page, including concerns that the river in that area was rising following recent and continuing heavy rain. They reported that they had removed four horses, two others had been euthanized on site by ‘their vets’ and another young horse had been hit by a car and had also been euthanized due to the injuries it sustained.
At least one Facebook user went out to assist with the ‘rescue’ but was unable to find anyone within the area. They went alone. It was early morning in winter. It was dark and there were no lights, no other vehicles and no noise to indicate activity in the area. They could view the location from above via a bypass. They repeatedly messaged the ‘rescuers’ to ask where they were but received no information. Another group of horses, tethered on a river bank, very close to the alleged ongoing ‘rescue’ location were also reported as being in danger on the same Facebook group page. The individual looking to assist the ‘rescue’ spent some time with the tethered animals, alone, to ensure their safety. Eventually the individual left the scene as a notice had been posted in the Facebook group stating their primary concern was the loose horses, and that ‘everything was in hand’.
As the ‘rescue’ was being reported, the Facebook page lit up with concerned comments, some coming from the USA, and the administrators asked for donations to be given via a PayPal account for the care, including vets’ bills, of the animals that they stated were now in their possession. A few people, some of them local to the situation, started asking questions including requests for the police incident number to be posted in case anyone had any information about the RTA in which the young horse was fatally injured. People asked for photos of the animals ‘rescued’ and for details of how they were doing and what veterinary treatment they were receiving. The administrators set up a post for concerned followers to provide names for the saved horses.
A good number of people gave accurate and helpful advice regarding the law under the Animal Welfare Act (2006), the setting up and running a charity and how to liaise with other welfare agencies. There were offers of expertise and equipment, including night vision goggles by a local animal activists.
All offers of help were turned down with statements by the administrators that they knew what they were doing and that the ‘public’ where to keep away. The administrators were able to be vague about details as they had not been at the site, rather their ‘team’ had been. They stated that they were awaiting details from them and could not answer questions until they had received information themselves. Those asking for information were viewed as hostile and accusatory by the two administrators of the group and they immediately took any very genuine and reasonable questions as allegations that they had been ‘stealing’.
The group suddenly changed from an open to a closed group and people were removed for asking challenging questions. Another horse welfare Facebook community voiced their concerns about people donating money to the ‘rescuing’ group and were swiftly vilified with derogatory comments and language.
Donations were suddenly retuned to donors by the administrators, but some just immediately re donated again, believing that what was being reported was real and altruistic.
Then came a statement that, due to the level of questioning by individuals on the group page the four surviving ‘rescued’ horses had been passed on to another horse charity. It was hinted that they had gone to a well known and reputable equine charity, whose welfare department, when I checked with them, confirmed that they knew nothing about this situation and had certainly not taken in any horses from these individuals.
Several locals visited and gave daily reports of the tethered horses on the river bank that were in less than ideal conditions but in good health, continued to be safe from the river and were being checked, fed and watered daily by their owner. The RSPCA were also aware of these animals.
In another post, several days later, it was suddenly announced that the two administrators would be driving to the area to ‘have a look’ at the horses on the river bank themselves. When they eventually set off (it was now dark) their horse box broke down ‘somewhere on the motorway’, the RAC ‘could not attend until the next day’ and then the driver’s phone ‘died’. There were immediate offers of help, one from a woman who was prepared to go out and look for the horse box located ‘somewhere on the motorway’ on a late and dark winter evening. Others offered to drive them to the location, some hours away.
Eventually, with some skilled probing by some group members, one of the administrators began to admit that the ‘rescue’ had never taken place and that it was all a hoax. They claimed that the other administrator had not told them the truth and they, like the others following the group, had been misled and that they knew nothing. They eventually closed the Facebook group down and opened another similarly named page. Some followers continued to support them as they felt that the administrator was an injured, well meaning but naive innocent party.
How might animal welfare social media hoaxes fit with some forms of animal rescuing / hoarding?
Having written several papers on animal hoarding for professional journals (accepted for and pending publication), these recent events have made me reflect on whether the use of social media is now an inevitable extension or platform for the animal ‘rescuing’ behaviours that have been identified within animal hoarding. It struck me that the events of the hoax described above had dynamics and behaviours that were similar if not identical to what occurs in certain types of animal hoarding situations where hoarders claim to be rescuing animals.
The different types of animal hoarders / rescuers
Generally, with animal hoarding, one tends to think of single, socially isolated, usually female individuals who keep large numbers of smaller domestic animals such as cats or dogs in appalling conditions. However the limited work that has been undertaken on animal hoarding, mostly in America, has identified three main suggested types of animal hoarding behaviour (see page 20 http://vet.tufts.edu/hoarding/pubs/AngellReport.pdf).
Whilst the first type of ‘Overwhelmed Carer’ animal hoarder may go some way to fitting the stereotype understood by the general public there are two other main types identified by (Patronek, Loar and Nathanson 2006) – ‘rescuer hoarders’ and ‘exploiter hoarders’. Individuals fitting in to these two groups are more difficult to identify as hoarders and they are very likely to generate support from others.
Rescuer hoarders tend to actively seek out more animals to take in, stating that they are working to avoid any animals dying or being killed. Exploitative hoarders are likely to be persuasive, engaging and believable but lacking in either any empathy for animals and humans or remorse for the impact of their actions. They can be very skilled in persuading supporters and others that they are in fact the victims of the situation and are the ones being persecuted. Animal hoarders/ rescuers can also be very adept in giving plausible explanations that can fool even agencies and animal welfare organisations.
Supporters of animal hoarders /rescuers are often passionate and will fiercely defend what they perceive as the good work being done by well-meaning individuals. Any questioning the motives of the ‘rescuers’, no matter how gently or neutrally will be seen as outrageous affronts.
In all types of animal hoarding / rescuing repeat offending almost always occurs. When agencies become involved and intervene hoarders tend to move on and will very quickly start the same behaviours, often within days or weeks.
The abuse of animals, of people, of trust
Basically these second two categories of animal hoarding behaviour are clouded by a smoke screen of animal ‘rescuing’ but are actually driven by individuals seeking to meet their own needs using calculating and callous methods. Their actions may be driven to gain power (over animals and people), notoriety, public recognition, monetary or material gain, other more personally driven reasons or perhaps a combination of these.
There is a recognised correlation between animal abuse and human abuse and this is very often the case in animal hoarding cases. In the recent Facebook case described above, I would suggest that people were abused. Followers’ trust was abused by deceit. There was the request for donations (monetary and material) to support animals that did not exist. Concerned and very caring individuals put themselves at risk as they went out in bad weather conditions, alone and in the dark in to the countryside and on to flooding land. Others possibly went to look for a broken down lorry ‘somewhere’ on a motorway, again in the dark.
Social media is an amazing arena that allows people to swiftly gain information and support, make connections, develop networks, speak to others and help a huge variety of causes. However it can also be used to dupe large numbers of very well meaning people in to giving time, energy, support, resources and money. Emotive subjects, such as animal welfare are prime pickings for a certain type of individual. These individuals would have traditionally operated with perhaps a smaller group of supporters over a larger timeframe in a particular geographical area. Social media allows these types of exploitation to occur very rapidly and to draw in large numbers of people believing that an ‘emergency’ is unfolding and that they must do their best to help.
Sadly, many of the individuals involved, when they realise that they have been taken in blame themselves for allowing it to happen and are probably much less likely to offer help in the future. There is a well recognised animal welfare crisis that is ongoing in the UK, and elsewhere in the world, and unfortunately that crisis is likely to be made worse by a small number of individuals who prey upon animals and people and who can now use social media as a swift, effective and anonymous method to do this.
I hope that this blog can be seen by some of the people taken in by the hoax described here, that they will be able to realise that this type of behaviour can fool many people and that is, unfortunately, not rare. I hope that those kind and generous people can continue to offer their time, energy, help, knowledge, funding and support to people who genuinely work for the good of animals, and of other humans.
Animal Welfare Act 2006 HMSO
http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2006/45/contents (Last accessed February 1 2013).
Patronek G, Loar L, Nathanson J (Eds) (2006) Animal Hoarding: structuring interdisciplinary responses to help people, animals and communities at risk. http://vet.tufts.edu/hoarding/pubs/AngellReport.pdf (Last accessed Janaury 1 2014).