Fiona the baby hippo, or how animals go viral
04:00 PM, August 29, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 04:06 PM, August 29, 2017

Fiona the baby hippo, or how animals go viral

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 America, zoos and animal parks are looking for the next internet sensation -- a strategy that tugs at the country's heartstrings and generates tons of clicks, but one that can also backfire.

Fiona was born prematurely in January, weighing just 29 pounds (13 kilograms).

But from Tuesday, she will be the star of her own series, "The Fiona Show," on Facebook's Watch, the social network's new platform for original video content.

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 pledged to unveil a never-before-seen video of the hippo's birth.

America has fallen in love with the adorable but somewhat clumsy mammal, whose first steps have felt in some ways like a soap opera, with a regular rhythm of ups and downs. She has her own hashtag: #TeamFiona.

In one video released by the zoo, fans can see Fiona being bottle-fed by a caretaker shortly after birth, nestled into the woman's chest.

Then, with the world watching, Fiona found her taste for playtime, diving into the pool to reconcile with her mama, who had initially rejected her at birth.

At seven months, she now weighs a more standard 450 pounds (200 kilograms).

"We didn't plan on her becoming a celebrity. It just happened," Cincinnati Zoo communications director Michelle Curley told AFP.

"We were transparent and communicated her health challenges from the day she was born. People started to root for her and fell in love with the little hippo."

Zoo attendance up

The idea of turning Fiona into a reality star was not really the zoo's idea, Curley said.

"Facebook approached us about doing a show about Fiona on their new Watch platform," said Curley, admitting that she herself is "crazy" about the hippo.

Curley admits that the "Fiona factor" has boosted the zoo's bottom line.

"Attendance has been great this summer, and some of that can be attributed to the Fiona factor. We have not, however, spent one dollar on ads inviting people to come see Fiona," she noted.

For Ivy Collier, a board member for the non-profit Animals and Society Institute, turning zoo animals into stars is an "economical" marketing tool.

In recent years in the United States, zoo births -- from pandas to eagles -- have been followed by hundreds of thousands of people online, thanks to live webcams focused on the animal enclosures.

Collier said she hopes that zoo watching and education will "translate into a deeper interest of animal protection and welfare."

"It's awfully hard to learn about cute, fuzzy polar bear cubs and then watch them be abused," she said.

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

Troubling or entertaining?

According to Moore, such a strategy could have repercussions down the line.

"Soon, we will put cameras on animals," she said with disdain.

Elizabeth Grauerholz, a sociologist at the University of Central Florida, agreed.

"I find it troubling on a few levels. These are income-generating endeavors that attract advertisers and sell products to benefit the (for profit) facilities," she said.

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

But she did warn of the misconceptions that could occur.

"Videos of captive animals without context may create unrealistic perceptions of wildlife behaviors and needs," Hogan told AFP.

"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."

While the strategy has divided animal experts, it's not exactly new, nor is it the product of the digital age.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Guy the Gorilla became the star of the London Zoo and British television.

Decades later, Fiona has fans in 70 countries.

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