Photograph by Andrea Pattaro, AFP, Getty
Photograph by Andrea Pattaro, AFP, Getty
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Why do people want so badly to believe this fake story is true?

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By Rachael Bale, ANIMALS Executive Editor

The most widely read story on our website last week was about the fake animal stories going viral on social media—the dolphins supposedly in Venetian canals and the elephants purportedly making themselves at home in a town in China, getting drunk on corn wine. (Pictured above: a real “dolphin-free” canal in Venice.)

We’re all desperate to find the light in a crisis.

Most of our readers on Facebook talking about the story were glad to learn the truth. Spreading something that’s not true—whether it’s as small as a positive story about animals or as consequential as an unproven cure for COVID-19—can make people feel even more distrustful during a time of vulnerability, social psychologist Erin Vogel told Nat Geo’s Natasha Daly.

It’s not that surprising, then, that some readers were angry at us for debunking these photos. More than a few actually. “Wow. This is so like telling your kid ‘Santa isn’t real’ right after the child happily sat on Santa's lap in the mall,” one person posted on Facebook.

Another: “Shame on you Nat Geo! You should've let us all believe the lies that brought a little bit of sunshine to our hearts in these dark times.”

In our defense, we shared a bunch of true positive animal stories at the same time, so as not to leave you all totally hopeless. (Try this, this, or this.) Below, real swans in an Italian canal.

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The point is that we’re a fact-driven, science-based publication. Telling the truth is our business.

We still appreciate some good sarcasm though. Some of the Facebook commenters nailed it:

Jesse L.: “I saw a mammoth in the woods the other day. It’s really great to see they’re making a return, really great.”
Tim H.: “I saw a Velociraptor yesterday. She was solving a Rubik's cube.”
Andrew F.: “My cats and dogs grew opposable thumbs during quarantine, and now they like to play chamber music.”

And humor site The Onion poked fun at the viral phenomenon with a satire piece about thousands of formerly endangered white rhinos flooding New York City.

Readers, I have a request: Please do keep sharing things that lift your spirits! Just make sure they’re true.

(To evaluate the veracity of a story, check out FactCheck.org’s thorough how-to guide. We’ve also got tips on finding the source of photos at the end of this viral animal photos story.)

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Your Instagram photo of the day

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When the outback was wet: Sixteen years ago, Randy Olson was photographing a story for Nat Geo about weather in Australia. The cooling monsoonal rains were inundating the outback, making it difficult for people to get around—but easy for crocodiles, which took advantage of the rains to travel overland from pool to pool. For the past few years, Australia suffered its worst drought in more than a century, creating conditions for savage wildfires in December and early this year.

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Today in a minute

Social distancing: These wild animals keep their distance to avoid illness, Nat Geo’s Sydney Combs reports. Female guppies and house mice can detect (and are repulsed by) parasitic infections in potential mates; chimps and honeybees get aggressive if a potential health threat shows signs of intruding.

Time to adopt a pet? U.S. animal shelters are reporting a surge in adoptions corresponding to the orders to stay and work from home to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Many New Yorkers, traditionally unable to own a pet because they spent so little time at home, suddenly have changed their minds, says Katy Hansen, a spokesperson for Animal Care Centers of NYC. “I think it is a combination of feeling lonely and having the time,” she tells the New York Times.

Saving wayward, endangered seabirds: A New Zealand cabbie began noticing that on foggy nights, Hutton’s shearwater chicks were walking dazed on the road. Toni Painting figured out they were crash-landing on the road, mistaking it for the sea. Painting and other volunteers now keep an eye on the nighttime roads in the southern town of Kaikoura during fledgling season, delivering them to a nearby rehabilitation center, the Guardian reports. It’s important: The breeding colonies for the endangered seabirds has been reduced from eight to two since the 1960s.

The big takeaway

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A contradiction? China has banned the use of or trade in wild animals for food after the COVID-19 pandemic began with some sort of animal-to-human tie. Now, however, as Nat Geo’s Rachel Fobar reports, the nation is promoting the trade in animal parts anew, with the claim that an injection containing bear bile can be used to treat severe and critical COVID-19 cases. (Pictured: A moon bear that was rescued from a farm that painfully extracts bile from bears.) The bile contains ursodeoxycholic acid, which is clinically proven to help dissolve gallstones and treat liver disease. It has been available as a synthetic drug worldwide for decades, and there is no evidence it can treat the coronavirus. Even if the acid does help, its synthetic production renders the capture of bears and painful extraction of bear bile unnecessary.

In a few words

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Last glimpses

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Mighty mouse: You’re looking at the mammal dwelling at the highest altitude in the world. This yellow-rumped leaf-eared mouse was caught by a researcher on the summit of a 22,110-foot volcano straddling Chile and Argentina, Nat Geo’s Douglas Main reports. There is no vegetation on the oxygen-starved summit and temperatures can reach minus 75 degrees Fahrenheit. “Nobody expected mice to be living that high,” says Jay Storz, the mouse-capturing biologist. Storz, a National Geographic Explorer, seeks to understand how these animals survive such extremes. He hopes that knowledge could inform attempts to help humans coping with low levels of oxygen from disease, exertion, or altitude sickness.

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, with photo selections by Eslah Attar. Have an idea, a link, a one-of-a-kind cat story? We’d love to hear from you at david.beard@natgeo.com . Thanks for reading.