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Friday, March 31, 2023

Why Are Bear Cams So Magical? An Investigation

Her name is Bear 409—Beadnose to her fans—and she had been crowned Katmai National Park’s Fattest Bear of 2018. On Tuesday, she edged out her competition, Bear 747—an ursidae so rutund his belly nearly scrapes the ground—by 4,000 votes in an online competition. GIFs of her impressive transformation from svelte salmon snatcher to a half-ton furry orb earned tens of thousands of retweets and hundreds of thousands of likes. In short, Beadnose is more internet famous than you will ever be.

Katmai National Park’s bear cams are just one of approximately 16,000 nature-focused remote video feeds you can tune into across the web. These livestreams boast a relatively candid view of life in the wild, and have become increasingly prevalent as enthusiasts discover that netizens can’t get enough of peering at wildlife from the safe distance of their screens. The appeal is a cute form of escapism—akin to puppy cams or cat memes. But the organizations and services indulging us all by hosting them have another motive: Animal cams are good for the wildlife business.

The first animal cam was the Amazing Fishcam, a view into a fishtank in the Netscape offices, which graced the internet in 1994. In the decades since, as webcam technology and access improved, the genre has exploded, giving us viral sensations from the Puppy Bowl to the long-pregnant April the Giraffe to the gleefully chubby Fiona the Hippo. Live feeds have even become selling points for doggie day cares, a form of viral marketing that also satisfies pup parents. Philosophers have proposed that these feeds foster a sense of connection between city-dwellers and nature, that watching animals play and sleep and reproduce and dart through the activities of animal life builds empathy and attachment in the human viewer, regardless of whether the animal is a bunny or a shark.

But there’s a scientific underpinning to your panda obsession, too. A lot of these cams specialize in baby animals and animals bred to be pets because, much like human babies, they are cute in a way that hijacks your brain. Nobel Prize winning ethologist Konrad Lorenz called this type of compelling cuteness Kinderschema—it’s characterized by infantile traits like big heads and eyes, small noses, fat cheeks, and soft, chubby bodies. This is probably why Bear 409’s rolls are so squee-inducing. (Unchubby adult bears are not very Kinderschema-tic, which is why teddy bears evolved over time to have shorter noses and more prominent eyes.) But the impact of that brain-grabbing adorableness is largely positive: Studies since have found that gazing at cute animal faces not only boosts mood but also improves focus, which you might want to point out to your boss if you ever get in trouble for tuning in to an animal cam during business hours.

In fact, for the many zoos and national parks that maintain video feeds, webcams are business. They draw crowds, sell merch, and raise awareness for wildlife conservation. They can even be a matter of national policy: According to Kathleen Buckingham, a research manager at the World Resources Institute, China’s export of panda bears (nearly all of whom have dedicated webcams either in China or abroad) is a psychological strategy. Buckingham theorizes that, for China, bringing outside nations closer to the bears is a form of “soft power,” since cuddly creatures inspire closer bonds with the nations it loans pandas to.

“We always joke that we have to include some kind of animal in every email because that’s what gets people to click,” says Jin Ding, marketing coordinator at the Pulitzer Center with a research background in Chinese environmental management. “For the Smithsonian, panda cams are a key fund-raising tool, and national parks will be thinking this way, too.” Ding also points out that setting and forgetting a webcam is far easier (and less costly) than sending out photographers, and that for marketers and average citizens alike sharing animals posts is a good way to stay relevant yet uncontroversial on a polarized internet. “People are tired of anything political, and I feel obliged not to post that kind of content every day,” Ding says. “Everyone would rather see panda cubs. So it’s kind of snowballed over the last year.”

Since that snowball shows no sign of slowing its roll, these cams may eventually become not just business but big business. One study estimates that because the Katmai National Park bear cams draw over 10 million viewers and rack up some 2.4 million watch hours, they are effectively worth $27 million—annually. IRL visitors, when you combine their travel costs and fees, are worth only $7.8 million. That webcam money is hypothetical for now, because the cams are free (though they do bolster donations and park visits), but the National Parks Service has expressed specific interest in getting more from their virtual visitors.

So by all means, enjoy the bears and the kittens and all the rest. They’ll make you feel better, improve your focus, and any money you throw their way will (probably) go toward protecting them and improving their furry little lives. Sure, it’s marketing, but do you really mind?

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