Lance Corporal made his TikTok debut in 2018, seemingly shaking to high tempo music then quickly leaping to playfully nibble and rub his face on his owner’s hand. Later, a post of the now four-year-old white fox — burrowing a hole into his favorite couch in order to hide — went viral, gaining 6.5 million views.
Today, the fox is a TikTok star, with nearly 2 million followers. His owner, Troy Hoffman, a disabled veteran with nine pets, posts videos of Lance playing with his pit bull best friend, napping in random nooks throughout the home or barking that he’s hungry, lonely or scared.
“He’s got this really good smile and just like a positive vibe about him,” Hoffman said. “So we just kind of use that to try to just make positive content.”
TikTokkers quell their boredom with cute cats, dogs and rabbits. But viewers are becoming increasingly captivated by videos of exotic pets like servals, raccoons, kinkajous and foxes, which rack up millions of views.
Experts say these enticing videos are leading TikTokkers to buy exotic pets without considering the responsibilities that go into owning them.
“One minute on TikTok, we can show only the good and not show the bad,” said Nancy Coyne, a wildlife rehabilitation specialist. “Nobody on TikTok is going to show when that animal turns around and bites somebody. So you’re only getting the cute and cuddly, you’re not getting the other side of it. And the other side is usually when they mature.” When these animals grow larger, it becomes more difficult to handle them.
Hoffman, on the other hand, said he did extensive research and planning before deciding to purchase Lance from an exotic pet store in Pensacola, Fla. And he’s still learning about his behaviors. When TikTok asked him to join the app, Hoffman found a community of fox TikTokkers like @Juniperfoxx, @napkinsthefox and @kikithefox_ who share tips on how to care for their foxes, like using corn cob shavings in their litter boxes so that the animals aren’t poisoned if they ingest the food they hide in it, a common behavior for fox pets.
A TikTokker is showing viewers the reality of exotic pet ownership
There’s a large following for big-cat accounts on TikTok, like Luna the black leopard and Messi the puma, where owners cuddle and play with them like domestic cats. One serval named Stryker has eight million followers. A video of the TikTok star groaning deeply while holding a whole chicken in his mouth garnered over 46 million views.
TikTokker Felicia Wilson makes fun of the way visitors are immediately scared away when they first see her two African servals, Juno and Asha, in TikToks that became viral. The servals were rescued from neglectful owners.
Wilson, an animal transporter, said she posted her first TikTok by accident, thinking it was a video editing app, but then she realized it had become public.
“I said, well, this is a great opportunity for me to share my transports with people, because it’s fun and interesting and hard,” she said. “And then try and educate people on servals a little bit.”
Wilson wants to inform her almost one million followers about the “ugly truth” of owning an exotic animal like a serval, including getting them accustomed to a new home, feeding them their prey, cleaning after them, figuring out their temperaments and taking them to a specialized vet to treat health issues.
Wilson is careful to not tell her followers where to purchase servals because she doesn’t want to encourage her audience to have them as pets. Families should only get a serval if they have a proper environment and training, she says, and can handle a lifelong commitment.
Another TikTokker is telling her followers exotics are not pets
Animal TikTok is full of endearing and playful kinkajous, commonly called honey bears, napping with their paws out, sitting on their owners’ backs while they drive, wearing holiday costumes or eating chips from inside the bag. Kinkajous are rainforest mammals closely related to raccoons.
“You’re seeing this really fantastical view, when really they are acting like wild animals because that’s what they are,” said Alexandra Ashe, an exotics expert who founded a sanctuary for kinkajous.
Ashe says some TikTokkers place their kinkajous in dangerous situations, where they can bite people or other pets, to get more views.
Users who search for exotic pets on TikTok see a message that says in part, “TikTok is committed to ensuring that our platform is free from content that depicts or promotes the illegal trade of wildlife and exploitation of animals.”
The “mother of kinkajous” advises at the top of her TikTok page that kinkajous should not be pets, as most owners are not equipped to care for them. Because of this, only 10-15% of kinkajous stay in the homes they start out in, Ashe said. Rehoming exotics like kinkajous can often be a death sentence.
Her account, which has a million followers, aims to educate people about the behaviors of kinkajous and how such situations can be prevented.
Providing information about exotics motivates some TikTokkers
Some TikTok accounts glamorize exotic animal ownership, experts say. Most don’t film the bites, cleanups, furniture damage and extra expenses.
Coyne, who rehabilitated a TikTok-famous beaver named Beave at her home for two years, often gets calls from people who impulsively buy a wild rabbit, raccoon or fox because they saw one on TikTok or other social media, but don’t realize what it takes to make that animal a pet. That can lead to either the owner or animal getting hurt, or the animal getting surrendered.
“When they’re little, they’re cute and cuddly, and it starts out great,” Coyne said. “Then they become aggressive and very destructive, and they start biting their children and that’s not the animal they started with.”
A community of TikTok racoon owners, who call them “trash pandas,” post videos of their pets running into their arms, being walked in a stroller or eating cheerios. Wilson was part of that community as she rehabilitated a raccoon named Chloe in her home, but later decided it would be best to release her.
A wild animal cannot thrive in a captive environment and is not meant to be surrounded by people, Coyne said.
While some states like New York have extremely strict wildlife laws, other states like Arkansas allow up to six wild animals in a household without a permit. But viewers won’t know whether a TikTok exotic pet is owned illegally or legally, or what state they’re in, unless the owner explicitly states it.
Such pets often don’t get the care they need in time because it’s rare to find a vet who specializes in exotic animals, Coyne said, especially in states with stricter ownership laws.
“Everyone loves foxes and they think they’re the most adorable thing ever, but the hardships of having the fox isn’t well known,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman wants to show TikTok viewers how to care for a “fur toddler” like Lance the fox. He tells them about having to put up a baby gate, not being able to go on vacations because no one can babysit, paying $90 weekly for his food, making sure he doesn’t chew on things and putting him to sleep by 9:30 p.m.
“It’s just really kind of showing people that there are a good bit of us out here that are here for the animals,” Hoffman said. “And a lot of us didn’t do this to become famous, we did it just to show how to properly take care of an animal.”
Dalia Faheid is an intern on NPR’s News Desk.