On YouTube, you’re never far from a dying kitten

A KITTEN IS FIGHTING for its life. Tangled in the grip of a python, the white, fluffy creature meows pathetically until it appears to stop breathing. Eventually, the python is removed from the kitten by an apparent rescuer, who performs chest compressions until the tiny creature begins to move again.

This scene might be familiar to you if you’re one of the 2.7 million people who watched “Kitten from King Cobra Attack Be Rescued In Time! | You Try Not to Cry” on YouTube. This video, which has appeared on YouTube in various forms in recent years, was reuploaded by a channel called ‘Rescue animals’ and opens with a pair of farmers inspecting a field, apparently hearing a nearby disturbance. After investigating, they find the kitten. The comments section is full of praise for the men who apparently saved the kitten’s life.

It’s not the only daring feat of animal rescue uploaded by the channel. In another, titled “Rescue the poor cat with her feet tied on a deserted road in the cold night”, a man in a black and pink tracksuit stands over a fluffy white cat that has been abandoned on a dark city street somewhere in Vietnam. The animal is writhing in obvious distress, its front and rear paws bound with black tape. The man struggles to free the animal with the whole encounter filmed and later uploaded to YouTube, where it has been viewed more than 120,000 times.

The video’s description claims that “the cat was thrown into the street by the owner in the empty night”. Throughout the apparent rescue operation, the camera operator never stops filming and never offers to help save the cat. The video ends with a sequence showing the cat safely at home, although there’s no indication of what order the segments were filmed in. From the outset, something is off. The man in the tracksuit walks purposefully through the dark and immediately locates the distressed animal – a common, clumsy trope in dozens of staged rescues.

The videos are two examples of the scores of apparently staged YouTube rescue videos, which have collectively been viewed millions of times, that show animals in distress or being abused. On the Google-owned video platform, videos of animal suffering are routinely monetised using its advertising model with creators using shocking content, sensationalist titles, and doctored thumbnails to lure in viewers and turn a tidy profit.

Individuals and charities have been raising the alarm over animal abuse on YouTube for years, from fake rescues to fights, baiting and animal torture. Reports about the issue date back to at least 2007 and every year there are new appeals for YouTube to take action. But the platform has a reputation for being unresponsive on the issue, taking two years to ban an infamous cat-killer.

In March, we contacted YouTube with a list of 28 of the most obvious channels dedicated to staged rescues and animal cruelty, illustrating a number of ways in which channels profited from the content. Some made money from advertising; others sold print-on-demand t-shirts or requested viewers make donations via PayPal. A number used deceptive logos and stolen videos. All but two of the channels were removed from YouTube. But the problem is a big one and it hasn’t gone away.

Lady Freethinker, a non-profit animal welfare media organisation, also investigated 200 fake rescues and fights between wild animals as part of broader research into animal cruelty on YouTube between April and June 2020. Collectively the videos had been viewed more than 17 million times. And a list provided to WIRED by umbi, an independent researcher who works with other concerned viewers to manually report animal abuse videos to YouTube, included over 2,000 channels. These ranged from staged rescues, stolen videos, puppy mills and fake animal shelters with fraudulent payment details, to outright bestiality. One channel, named after a popular children’s entertainment channel, had explicit thumbnail titles, such as “xxx sex sexy videos sex with animals donkey with girl”.