Ah springtime: The flowers are out, pigeons are doing their funny mating dances, and I’m here in my cubicle experiencing the miracle of birth.
Dog birth, that is. In my browser, Bella, a Labrador Retriever, is pushing out puppies. What I am watching is actually a recording of the blissful moment, which occurred the first week of May. Bella’s owner, Julie Daigle, streamed the event live. The night of the birth, 17,000 people logged on to watch, with some 300 staying on for the entire six-hour birth.
It’s OK that I didn’t catch this in real time: I’ve seen my share of videos of puppies being pushed out. Yes, this is a pretty advanced stage of addiction. It all started off innocently enough—as a kid I was big into posters of fluffy Maltese puppies sitting in teacups with rainbow backgrounds. But then came the Internet. And copious videos of mommy dogs licking their impossibly small, moist bundles. (The video below’s a little graphic, in case you couldn’t tell from the thumbnail. And here’s another live birth of Dachshunds).
This kind of addiction isn’t just limited to dog lovers: On May 6, thousands went on to The New York Times’ City Room blog to watch the hatching of a pair of red tailed hawks above Washington Square Park. Others tuned in earlier this year to see live red panda cubs frolic as part of a Firefox publicity ploy. For Idaho IT Manager Dian Welle, the addiction originally involved live horse births. “I can’t even tell you how many hours I’ve spent watching—too many,” she told me. For a while, she had an alert that came on her screen if one went into labor. “I’m not even a horse person, but it’s just all about seeing that one breathtaking moment….”
The site she watched was MareStare.com, which bills itself as a way to pair voyeurs with horse breeders who could use extra sets of eyes in case a horse goes into labor unexpectedly. In exchange for sharing the births, the horse owners make use of having “viewers from all over the world, who will call them as soon as their mare goes into labor,” according to the site. It’s kind of 1984 meets Animal Farm.
Inspired by MareStare, Welle started streaming her own Labradors giving birth. She has aired eight births to date, and also started WhelpWatch, a portal that provides access to live puppy cams. “As a breeder, it keeps you on your toes,” she says. “For instance, you keep your box a little cleaner because you don’t want to have a bunch of stool on camera,” she said.
The crack cocaine of any puppy voyeur is the SFShiba cam, which was started by a California couple in 2008 and received mega media coverage. “I like to have them on in the background while I’m cooking,” said Pam Carlson, a Washington state Shiba Inu rescuer and fellow puppy cam junkie told me. “They’re always just so happy!” This April, the SFShiba people started streaming their third litter. On my computer, those puppies (Chame, Chikara, Zen, Yo-Yo, Saki, and Charlotte) are in one window, snuggled atop one another in their purple bed. In another window I have Bella with her now two-week old pups. This feed is mostly shot through the fencing of Bella’s “Dura Whelp,” a device which is getting some free advertising through this arrangement—some 28,000 people have logged into this stream since it was put up. There are occasional comments from other anonymous puppy watchers. I sort of enjoy the ridiculousness of the lewd one-liners that sometimes pop up, but Daigle usually blocks those pretty quickly. I also like Golden Pups, a stream of tiny golden retrievers that, as I type, are climbing all over each other to get at the teet of their happily panting mom. Their box’s wood is blond, the carpet beige, the puppies golden; it’s a more monochrome cinematic experience than I’d like, but I’ll take it.
Occasionally, I also dabble in kittens. While I enjoyed seeing a camera called the “Kitten Crew” show baby cats play with an iPad on the floor of the bathroom where they live, I was generally been turned off by the camera’s constant focus on the toilet. It’s especially weird when people come and sit on the toilet. I can only see their legs. Fortunately, their pants always stay up.
A lot of puppy cam owners started out webcasting so that they could monitor their charges and also show them off to faraway friends, family, and potential buyers or adopters. Denae Hudson of Hudson’s Southern Bulls English Bulldogs, has had a camera trained on her litter of five puppies for the last six weeks. She is a microbiologist in Lynchburg, VA and she and her husband Shad occasionally breed their English Bulldog, Kokie. One night, while she was up feeding them at 3AM when they were just a few days old, she was doodling around online and found the dozen or so live puppy cams on UStream. So she went out and bought a camera. Now, she fields calls in the middle of the night when relatives tune in at odd hours and see them fighting too vigorously or toppling over. I contacted her and she called me back one afternoon when she’d come home in the middle of the day to check on her babies. I was watching the puppies on screen while we talked and could see them peering at the door of their toy-filled four-foot-square pen, all tail wags and curious head tilts. “They’re looking at me while I’m talking to you,” she said. People from as far away as Pennsylvania and Texas have shown interest in adopting members of this litter because of her UStream feed.
One reason I like watching puppy cams is that it means I can enjoy baby animal cuteness in real time without shouldering the responsibility of bringing puppies into this world. Dog breeding is a complex issue. I wish that we could first find homes for all the world’s abandoned and ill-treated dogs before we started making new ones. But this is about as hard to enforce as my childhood suggestion in Health class that we institute a ban on sex until we can cure AIDS. At least the constant surveillance means that these particular puppy makers are extra considerate to show that their animals are being treated humanely.
These cams aren’t just a glimpse at some of the cuteness in the world: they’re also reminders that sometimes life sucks. Dian Welle of WhelpWatch has seen foals die on MareStare and several times has tried to revive her own dogs’ stillborn puppies on camera. Each attempt was a failure. A kerfuffle broke out online about whether humans should interfere when Violet, the mother of the Washington Square hawk baby, looked like she wasn’t going to survive a leg infection that took place while her baby bird was still in its nest. And Daigle received some flack from viewers for helping to pull out a puppy that was caught in the birth canal. Some viewers thought she should let “nature take its course.”
“If you’re going to watch the cute side, you sometimes have to see the cruel, too,” Welle said. “It is something that might dissuade someone from having litters. In that way, it really feels to me like a service I’m providing. Puppies are so much work—not everyone should have them.”
But I’m glad that some people do. And that they are sharing the love. Thank you to all you good puppy owners: you all have great looking knees.
This article originally appeared on ReadyMade.com.