Animals gone viral: Zoos capture online interest

Hippo Fiona now stars in The Fiona Show, where details of its life, like being bottle-fed, are shared online.
Hippo Fiona now stars in The Fiona Show, where details of its life, like being bottle-fed, are shared online.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

WASHINGTON • First, Bao Bao and Bei Bei the pandas made a splash at the National Zoo in Washington.

Then, April the giraffe wowed fans at a game park in New York.

Now, meet Fiona the baby hippo, the pride and joy of Cincinnati.

Across the United States, zoos and animal parks are looking for the next Internet sensation - a strategy that tugs at the country's heartstrings and generates tonnes of clicks, but one that can also backfire. Fiona was born prematurely in January, weighing just 13kg. At seven months, it now weighs a more standard 200kg. And from yesterday, it is the star of The Fiona Show on Facebook's Watch, a new platform for original videos.

For the premiere, the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden - which already has been sharing every little detail of Fiona's life on social media - has a never-before-seen video of the hippo's birth.

In another video, fans can see Fiona being bottle-fed by a caretaker shortly after birth, nestled into the woman's chest. Then Fiona dived into the pool to reconcile with its mother, which had initially rejected it at birth.

ARTIFICIAL STRATEGY

It's completely artificial. And that's the paradox: It's supposed to get us closer to animals but it actually disconnects us. And eventually, we won't have to leave home anymore and will just watch webcams.

PROFESSOR LISA MOORE, a sociologist and professor at the State University of New York, Purchase College.

"We didn't plan on her becoming a celebrity. It just happened," Cincinnati Zoo communications director Michelle Curley said. But she admits that the "Fiona factor" has boosted the zoo's attendance numbers.

The idea of turning Fiona into a reality star was not really the zoo's idea, Ms Curley said: "Facebook approached us about doing a show about Fiona on their new Watch platform."

In recent years in the US, zoo births - from pandas to eagles - have been followed by thousands of people online, thanks to live webcams.

But for Professor Lisa Moore, a sociologist and professor at the State University of New York, Purchase College, such a strategy is "greenwashing" - pretending that it is pro-environmental and pro-animal, when it is really about money.

"It's completely artificial. And that's the paradox: It's supposed to get us closer to animals but it actually disconnects us. And eventually, we won't have to leave home anymore and will just watch webcams," Prof Moore said.

Ms Elizabeth Hogan, a programme manager at the New York-based World Animal Protection, said turning animals into Internet sensations is not all bad.

But she did warn about misconceptions.

"Videos that are more purely 'entertaining' may also create unrealistic perceptions of wild-animal interaction with people; in truth, the general public should never interact directly with wild animals," she said.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 30, 2017, with the headline 'Animals gone viral: Zoos capture online interest'. Print Edition | Subscribe