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Trying to Ride Wild Animals Is the Latest Bullshit Trend on YouTube

Melissa Cronin

Melissa Cronin

Wrangling a manatee? You deserve to be arrested.

The latest person to ride a wild animal is wearing swimming trunks and standing at the bow of a speed boat somewhere in the remote Canadian wilderness.

As the boat approaches the sprinting moose, then man crouches and suddenly lunges at the animal, landing square on its back as it lets out a loud groan. With the moose struggling to escape, the man wraps his arms around its neck, then punches his fist in the air.

The video already has over 1 million views, and British Columbia officials are investigating the incident.

Just a week before, another video showing a pair of men "surfing" on the back of a whale shark made the internet rounds and enraged conservationists.

Jumping on the backs of wild animals for sport can hardly be considered new. The trend seems to be gaining traction recently, however. People will ride anything they can get their butts on top of—hippos, bears, ostriches, even a three-month-old giraffe. A Google image search for the phrase "whale shark rider" brings up dozens of people clinging onto the sharks' fins. In Florida, home to the largest manatee population in the US, a woman was arrested in 2012 for riding a manatee.

Image: Pinellas County Sheriff Department

Her ride violated the state's Manatee Sanctuary Act and could've earned her up to 60 days in jail (she was released on bail).

So why do people continue to try to ride wildlife, despite a slew of high-profile cases in which people are shamed, fined, and even threatened with jail time? According to Dr. Ian Robinson, a veterinarian and vice president of programs for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, there are two forces at play here.

"In a way, it's this machismo element of trying to interact with dangerous wildlife—there's a high risk to yourself," he told Motherboard. "But there's also this video phenomenon—you put things on YouTube to get lots and lots of people to view you and have the video go viral."

"Blatant abuse of animals"

As the lessons of "Jackass" and its dangerous-stunt-spinoff shows taught us, when one idiot does something stupid online, hundreds of copycats are bound to follow.

Setting aside any questions of respect for nature or the dignity of animal life, wildlife riding can physically hurt animals. According to professor Mark Orams, an expert on marine tourism issues at the Auckland University of Technology, this particular type of behavior can be harmful to animals in ways that we barely even notice.

"When people are able to gain close proximity to animals, they often do so in places that are critical habitats for the wildlife or in situations that are important for their lives," he told Motherboard, adding that these are usually places where wildlife give birth or raise their young. "Disturbance to these natural behavior patterns can have long-term detrimental consequences."

Videos that people post on YouTube are usually short. It's never clear how long each animal was chased down in order to get that footage. In the case of filter-feeding whale sharks, an hours-long chase could prevent them from getting the three to six pounds of food they need to eat every hour.

In the moose's case, Robinson says, the impact of the chase could be even worse. Forcing an animal to run for its life puts excess stress on its body, especially if the pursuer is in a motor-powered boat or car and the animal is running. If this goes on long enough, it could eventually trigger capture myopathy, during which stress and dangerously high adrenaline levels can cause chronic metabolic upset and eventual death.

Robinson called the videos a "blatant abuse of animals."

"Seeing wildlife is amazing, but it's got to be on the terms of the wildlife," he said. "When people don't have that respect for wildlife, they think animals are there for their own amusement. People always take things too far."