Who doesn’t love a video of an adorable animal doing something funny? Just a quick browse through YouTube will reveal that it’s something millions enjoy watching. But as we chuckle at their furry antics, can we be sure of what went on offscreen to create those few seconds of entertainment? The truth can sometimes be darker than it seems.
In a recent YouTube video taken in Huaraz, Peru, a rat is caught on film having a shower. It scrubs away at its lathered-up fur in a comically human manner, and the resulting clip is both cute and funny. Worth sharing with a few friends at least. That’s what the millions of viewers who sent the YouTube video viral thought, anyway.
In the video, posted by Jose Correa, the rodent stands on its hind legs in what looks like a shower recess. It rubs at the soapy suds, appearing to wash its furry belly, its face and under its arms. The animal’s whiskers twitch and it looks like it’s thoroughly enjoying its leisurely scrub. Some YouTube commenters compared the animal to the anthropomorphic rat from the animated movie Ratatouille.
“He was just like a human, I’ve never seen anything like it,” Correa, an electronic music DJ, said in January 2018. “It went on for about 30 seconds, and then he ran off. I think he just wanted to give himself a good clean.” The 36-year-old musician said he was about to take a morning shower when he spotted the rat.
Not all the commenters are so positive, however. A few doubt the authenticity of the clip, speculating that it may be a clever video manipulation. Other viewers suggest something even more unpleasant. Rather than finding the viral vid endearing or humorous, these observers see an animal in distress.
YouTube commenter The Rat Emporium Toronto both warns against the use of soap on rats, and claims the creature in the video is not a rat but a juvenile nutria, a rodent native to South America. However, while many viewers agree that the showering animal is not a rat, experts say that it is most likely a different South American rodent, a pacarana.
“With the large head size, bipedal position, flexible forelimbs, short stiff tail, and consistent coat color… this animal fits the ID of a pacarana,” evolutionary biologist Dallas Krentzel told Newsweek in January 2018. “There is just no other rodent that would fit all of those features.”
Toumas Aivelo, an urban rat biology researcher at the University of Helsinki, Finland, agrees. “In English, rats are used routinely for a number of different rodents,” he told the Indy100 website in January 2018. “But scientifically pacaranas are more closely related to capybaras and guinea pigs than ‘true rats’ such as Norwegian rat or black rat.”
Pacaranas are large South American rodents native to Peru, Bolivia, Colombia and Venezuela. Like the animal in the video, they are stocky, with big heads, a short thick tail and clawed front limbs. Furthermore, the animals grow up to 31 inches long, tail excluded, and can weigh around 33 pounds. Much bigger than a normal rat, in other words.
Not a great deal is known about pacaranas in the wild, other than that they are nocturnal and live in tropical forested areas. Additionally, as the YouTube vid shows, they are able to stand upright without difficulty. The enormous rodents are slow movers and relatively tame, which makes them easy prey for humans and predators. They are classified as rare but are not endangered.
So the “rat” in the video is not a rat, then, but what about the “taking a shower” part? Well, there have been strong doubts about whether the animal is doing that, either. At least not voluntarily. “Pacaranas are apparently easy to catch so that could explain why it has ended up as the victim of YouTube video,” said Aivelo, who does not believe the animal enjoyed being in a lather.
“I think the rodent is trying to clean off the soap with normal, though a bit panicky, cleaning movements,” said Aivelo. “Panicky in a sense that it’s covered all over with the soap and it can’t easily get rid of it.” The researcher says that the rodent has natural oils in its fur that act as a layer of protection. The last thing the animals would need, then, is to strip this layer off with soap.
Many animal lovers worried about the effect of soap on the rodent, too. On its website, Peta2, the youth version of animal activists PETA, says, “The soapy substance is probably irritating the animal’s skin, and he or she is trying desperately to get it off… Imagine trying to take a shower with a large amount of shower gel and [having] nothing to remove it from your skin. Sounds pretty terrible to us.”
Biologist Krentzel, however, believes such fears are probably unwarranted. “I think it’s important that the public knows not to lather up pet rats with soap,” he wrote in a reaction piece to the Newsweek article, “but it’s also important that people aren’t misdirecting their ire at this particular viral video, as it really is cute and funny and probably not showing an animal in pain.”
YouTube user Snoring Dormouse also joined the debate by posting a video of a pacarana bathing in the wild. “We understand that concerns have been raised that the pacarana in the misnamed ‘Shower Rat’ video may be exhibiting unusual movements that suggest discomfort,” they wrote under the clip. “Please observe this clip of a pacarana in its natural habitat performing exactly the same actions.”
Meanwhile, Correa said that he did not stage the shower scene, but simply filmed it. Nor did he willfully cause any pain to the animal. “I would never want to hurt him. So I just filmed him and let him go,” he said. Unfortunately, since funny animal videos became so popular, there have been clear cases of animals being exploited for “likes” and “shares.”
Take the video “Waking Up a Sleeping Otter,” for example. The film, and the otter’s reaction to being suddenly woken, were seen by many as cute and funny. However, what the aquatic mammal was really displaying was fear.
A PhD student of marine conservation biology at the University of Miami, David Shiffman, criticized the video. “Wildlife harassment is a serious issue, and despite how this viral video is being portrayed, it is not ‘hilarious’ or ‘cute’,” he told the website A Plus. “Being startled causes an animal to use energy to react or escape, and it also causes physiological stress.”
One species that suffers a lot because of its endearing looks is the tree-dwelling loris, which features in many of YouTube’s viral animal videos. In one of these clips, a loris is shown lifting its arms in response to being tickled. And while the animal looks like it is enjoying itself, the arm-raising is actually a response to being terrified.
So, should fans of cute animal videos simply unplug themselves from the internet? Not quite, according to Animal Help Now. “Before liking or sharing an animal photo or video, it’s important to view it critically and ask yourself whether the animals are part of the fun or in fact apart from it,” the group advises. “It can be difficult to discern the difference between cute and cruel, but any person who loves and/or respects animals knows they are never the same.”