Robotics engineer explains what's really happening in viral video of 'tickling' ray fish

Everyone loves a hilarious animal video, and there are plenty of great ones to go around. However, not all animal videos are as cute as they might seem. In fact, some can be downright cruel without people realizing it.

Robotics engineer and NASA intern Aaron Shepard explains what's wrong with some of these videos in a TikTok he shared on Twitter. He said he usually uses his social media to talk about science and space exploration, but he's also an advanced scuba diver who was taken aback by a viral video showing a man "tickling" a ray.

Shepard's video begins with a clip showing a ray lying on its back on a boat. A man's voice says, "How do you tickle a fish?" and then a hand reaches down to "tickle" the ray. The ray wraps its fins around the man's hand, its mouth opens as if it's laughing, and then it closes its mouth in what looks like an adorable smile.

The problem is, it's not laughing or smiling, and what's happening is anything but adorable.


"One of the first things they teach you in scuba diving is to not touch the animals," Shepard says. "You run the risk of hurting yourself, but more importantly you have a chance of hurting the animal as well."

Shepard explains in the video that humans have a tendency to anthropomorphize wildlife, assigning them human characteristics and behaviors.

"In reality, this is a very stressful situation for the ray," Shepard says.

"Think about it like this. This ray is supposed to be breathing water and not it is up in air and somebody is forcing it to open its mouth and let out all the water that it needs and instead replace that with air.

That would be the equivalent of somebody holding you underwater and tickling you, forcing you to gulp in a bunch of water, which would be really really scary and stressful for you."

No doubt. When you think about it in those terms, it's just awful. I want to toss that poor ray right back in the water.

"All of these videos that we see online of animals doing cute things may look fun and harmless to us, but in reality it may be a traumatic experience for the animal."

Good reminder. Filming our domesticated cats and dogs' being their goofy selves is one thing, but forcing wildlife into unnatural situations is entirely another.

How do you tickle a fish? You don't. It's really that simple.

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