These five exotic animals have become internet sensations, but their newfound fame might not be best for them.
Published April 14, 2023
9 min read
Cats may own the internet but other animals are buying up shares.
Axolotls, ball pythons, bearded dragons, black widow spiders, and capybaras are among the critters with billions of TikTok views.
That’s partly because they’re cute—or ugly-cute. But experts say it also has to do with the medium itself.
“People resonate with these videos as they add human-like captions for the animals,” Julia Lee Cunningham, associate professor at the University of Michigan and a National Geographic Explorer writes in an email.
These videos inspire us to care about wildlife. But they may have hidden harms, too, as more people seek out exotic animals as pets.
So why do these animals win us over—and how does all the adulation affect their welfare? Here’s what you need to know.
Axolotls are small amphibians native to Central Mexico, where they are critically endangered due to pollution, habitat loss, and invasive species. There are only 50 to 1,000 left in their native habitat.
But these animals have become increasingly popular as pets—and have garnered at least 3.1 billion views on TikTok.
That likely has something to do with their big heads and large eyes, which remind us of human babies and activate our care-giving drive, says Oriana Aragon, a social psychologist at the University of Cincinnati.
“Cute is a huge influencer of human behavior,” Aragon says. Thanks to our evolutionary wiring, the sight of something cute triggers a wave of emotion in us—which sometimes even makes us want to squeeze it or squish it, a response Aragon and her team at Yale University investigated in 2015.
(Mexico City’s endangered axolotl has found fame—is that enough to save it?)
Axolotls’ appearance in popular video games—including Fortnite, Roblox, and Minecraft—may also be behind the rise in demand for them as pets. And that can come with dangers if people don’t know how to care for the animals.
New Zealand animal shelters took in thousands of axolotls in 2022 after naive buyers accidentally got breeding pairs—who quickly got busy producing hundreds of eggs. One of the rescue owners speculated to The Guardian at the time that this phenomenon was linked to Minecraft.
In our human ancestral history “we had to pay attention to snakes to stay alive,” says Molly DePrekel, psychologist and adjunct professor at the University of Denver’s Institute for Human-Animal Connection.
Seeing a snake engages your “primal brain,” where the fight-or-flight response lives.
That instant response and safe distance might partially explain the 2.3 billion TikTok views boasted by ball pythons a nonvenomous, gorgeously patterned snake. But they’re also just beloved.
A 2022 study in the journal Anthrozoos found that reptile owners see their pets with the same affection as other pet owners, as well as “admiration and fascination.”
“We have a desire to be loved or to give love,” says Leanne Nieforth, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Arizona College of Veterinary Medicine. It’s a need we often see “playing out in our pet relationships.”
They’re also refreshingly chill.
“There’s something very soothing and relaxing about animals that are laid-back,” says Catherine Salmon, a social psychologist at the University of Redlands and director of their Human-Animal Studies program. “It’s not like having a Chihuahua.”
Although they may be calming to watch, snakes have specific needs—from appropriate living quarters to the right temperature and humidity for their species. A 2022 study on welfare concerns for pet snakes found that 54.7 percent were kept in enclosures in which they couldn’t fully stretch out and 48.1 percent of owners didn’t measure the space’s humidity.
(Many exotic pets suffer or die in transit, and beyond.)
Some exotics are “more work than people realize,” says Salmon. Those who don’t rehome the animals just let them go in the wild, often to face death or, if the environment is suitable, become invasive.
These native Australian lizards boast 2.2 billion TikTok views and are the most popular pet among reptiles. Bearded dragons are agile, with pointed faces and, as the name suggests, an area under the chin that has spikes which they will puff out and darken if they feel threatened—or to impress females.
They’re certainly prehistoric looking and Aragon thinks the juxtaposition of wild and domestic is a big draw here.
Bearded dragons look wild but are often doted on by a human in the videos and, she notes, the mismatch is engaging. Someone hand-feeding their dog isn’t quite as much of a draw as someone hand-feeding a dragon.
The medium also makes the content more interesting.
“It’s personal,” she says, and it comes it right to you on your phone. “You can interact with others about it.”
Combined with the fact that we only see slices of life on social media this may make keeping an exotic animal as a pet seem easier than it is. The University of California at Davis School of Veterinary Medicine describes bearded dragons as wonderful pets but also enumerates a number of steps to ensuring their welfare at home—from ultraviolet B lighting to calcium supplements.
Black widow spiders
Female black widow spiders have a classic goth charisma, with their long legs and round pitch-black bodies with a bright red hourglass on their abdomens. Their 6.5 billion TikTok views, however, may have to do with the fact that they are North America’s most venomous spider.
Salmon notes that the danger is part of the appeal.
When people are uncertain “they either seek out more information or they run away from the information,” Nieforth says. TikTok makes it safe to get informed about something scary.
Part of the mystique of the black widow is that you’re unlikely to see it. In the daytime they like to hide out in dark, out-of-the-way places.
(Don’t be fooled by social media—wild animals make terrible pets.)
If kept as pets, however, black widow spiders need appropriate housing—and people should be careful not to handle them with bare hands, says Catherine Scott, a postdoctoral fellow at the Lyman Entomological Museum at McGill University in Montreal. They will only bite in self-defense, but if a bite occurs medical consultation is advised.
“There are always ethical concerns with the trade of wild animals as pets,” Scott says. But there is an upside in the case of spiders: “It allows more people to observe these beautiful and fascinating animals up close.”
These South American natives are the world’s largest rodent with TikTok views to match—6.8 billion views. They’ve even inspired one Russian musician on the social media platform to create one of the catchiest critter-centric tunes since Baby Shark.
Capybaras aren’t baby-faced but “look vulnerable, rounded,” Aragon says, which once again could play into our care-giving impulse.
They also appeal to our variety-seeking natures. Much the way we keep buying new flavors of Oreos, Aragon says, exotic animals tap into our love of novelty.
The desire to keep capybaras as pets may have to do with our desire for social status, says Salmon, the look-at-me factor of having something rare.
To safeguard the welfare of exotics, Nieforth says, it helps to first consider four of the five domains that are most critical to animal welfare: Make sure they have what their species needs when it comes to food, housing, health care, and behavior.
“Can you go beyond keeping the animal alive?” Nieforth asks. “Can you give a herd animal, a herd?”
Once you have those four domains covered, then you also need to ensure they’re actually resulting in the fifth domain of animal welfare for your pet—a good mental state. After all, capybaras and other animals may give you endless enjoyment while scrolling through social media—but they, like us, deserve a healthy life, on and off camera.