Viral photos, purporting to show wild animals ‘reclaiming’ cities left vacant by coronavirus shutdowns, have been making the rounds on social media. But are these feel-good posts too good to be true?
A recent tweet featuring photos of dolphins and swans swimming in clear Venice canals has amassed tens of thousands of likes. The user celebrates that “[n]ature just hit the reset button on us”. Another tweet celebrating the first sighting of the critically endangered Malabar civet since 1990 has been retweeted thousands of times – with a video to prove it.
Like the countless others that have followed, these posts claim that shutdown protocols are causing the return of wildlife to the world’s now-vacant cities. The reappearance of these animals has been the subject of articles from outlets including The Guardian, the New York Post, and The New York Times.
Posts like these provide a silver lining for victims of COVID-19’s disruptive spread, but the reality behind them is often disappointing. National Geographic wrote that the video of the ‘Venetian’ dolphins was actually taken at a port hundreds of miles away.
Why do people want to believe these posts? Susan Clayton, a psychology and environmental studies professor at the College of Wooster, told National Geographic, “People hope that, no matter what we’ve done, nature is powerful enough to rise above it.” The sense of hope that the stories bring might feel real, but the posts themselves often are not.
As for the posts that are genuine, there is usually much more to the story than coronavirus shutdowns. Urban ecologists have been studying the return of wildlife to cities for decades. Many of these changes came before coronavirus and the emptying of urban spaces. In San Francisco, for example, excited Twitter users have been uploading photos of coyotes roaming the streets. But an article about the city’s rebounding coyote population was published on February 20th – more than two weeks before San Francisco’s first reported case of COVID-19.
Ecologists have been quick to warn against the spread of misinformation about urban wildlife. Parveen Kaswan, a member of the Indian Forest Service, corrected a misleading photo purporting to show deer walking the streets of Jaipur. According to Kaswan, the photo was actually taken in Haridwar, where such sightings are common – the city borders Rajaji National Park. “[S]preading positivity is one thing,” Kaswan tweeted. “Dumbing down society is another.”
Others, though, have taken a more lighthearted approach to the issue of misleading wildlife posts. Memes and screenshots depicting everything from dinosaurs in New York’s Central Park to the cast of Cats in a London square celebrate the ‘return of nature’ to the world’s cities.
It is too early to tell which impulse – to celebrate, educate, or make fun of – will win the day.