Laughs and likes at a cost
Benjamin looks into the smartphone camera, confused by what’s being done to him as his owner tightens something around his ears, tying them together. He tries to shake his head in vain as the tightness around his ears doesn’t go away.
Benjamin is a Dachshund in Toronto whose owner decided to tie his ears together with a hairband and upload a video of him on the social media video app TikTok. Benjamin’s owner Claudia uploaded the video this October 2019 as part of the latest in the series of social media trends that critics say are proving to be harmful and abusive to the animals.
This trend, known as the #PutItInABun challenge, encourages users to tie up their pets’ ears with a hair-tie and film the confusion, for TikTok fame.
Sofia Chauvet, media liaison at People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), explained by giving examples of recent instances that are part of this trend.
She points to social media posts showing people abusing their animals, which often includes smacking, throwing, screaming or otherwise harming them, such as two recent incidents—one in which Twitch streamer Alinity Divine threw her cat, and another in which YouTuber Brooke Houts hit, shoved and screamed at her dog.
“Though the #PutItInaBunChallenge and similar social media gimmicks seem harmless at a glance, it is cheap and desperate to use companion animals to try to prompt laughs or likes,” according to Chauvet.
An example of a TikTok video posted as part of #PutItInABun challenge
#PutItInABun challenge has been massively popular on TikTok, garnering more than 120-million views from the app’s audiences. While many videos uploaded as part of this challenge seem harmless, a lot of them portray dogs who don’t seem comfortable in these situations, especially the ones where rubber bands are used to double or triple tie their ears in a really tight knot.
The American College of Veterinary Surgeons’ website states that trauma to the animal’s pinna (the “flap” of the ear) can cause a medical condition known as an Aural Hematoma. The condition is marked by a swollen ear flap due to the accumulation of blood or fluid in the ear’s cartilage.
This specific challenge is part of the larger trend of social media discourse that tends to be abusive and harassive to animals.
Los Angeles-based animal public figure Sushi the Dog’s owner Teresa Nguyen suggests that people should draw the line at things which make the animal uncomfortable.
“While shooting a lot of these videos, Sushi views them as doing tricks and getting treats after. I won’t do anything for a video if Sushi thinks it’s some sort of punishment for her. Trying to take a lot of multiple takes for the sake of a video would be a problem,” Nguyen said, in a telephone interview.
Owners like Nguyen choose to make social media accounts of their animals to share their cuteness with the world. But she stresses the importance of not letting this affect an owner’s relationship with their pet.
“You should still be their parent and not start treating them like a model and you, their manager.”
With animal cruelty becoming common on platforms like TikTok, it becomes all the more significant for these platforms to have a specific policy that bans such content. Upon investigation, the Toronto Observer found that TikTok does not have any specific policy to curb animal cruelty, even though similar rules exist to check cruelty against children.
“Our animal companions love us unconditionally and deserve the same in return, which is why PETA urges people to put animals’ well-being above the cheap currency of “likes” and “follows”—and calls on TikTok and other social media platforms to hold users accountable for any videos or photos in which they’re shown harming or harassing animals,” PETA vice president Joel Bartlett said in an email.
Jake Chattman, owner of TikTok sensation Esper Borzoi, a Russian Wolfhound, feels that doing things to pets in which they don’t have a say, is unfair.
“Some people are not necessarily endangering their pets, but doing things like dyeing their fur an unnatural color is not right,” Chattman said.
Sushi’s owner Teresa Nguyen disagrees.
“While showcasing one’s pet’s life online, it is essential to highlight their unique attributes and Sushi’s blue ears are something that makes her unique,” she says. “My ears are vegan and dog-friendly,” says Sushi’s Instagram bio.
Chattman has also observed a worrying trend where people actively look for animals that have deformities like a misshaped ear or a missing leg. In the guise of rescuing these animals, their abnormalities are showcased online because it is instant viral fame.
“It is a living being too, not an exhibit. It becomes clear that these people are showcasing the animal’s vulnerability instead of celebrating its life,” Chattman said.
Something that both Chattman and Nguyen agree upon is that the most important thing for them is enriching their pet’s life, so sharing a pet’s experiences online will always remain secondary to their pet’s happiness.
TikTok did not respond when approached for a comment for this article.