Sean Gottlieb, a 36-year-old supervising writer for VH1, considers himself a dour person. He doesn’t have pets, and he didn’t like his sisters’ pets growing up. He says he doesn’t really like animals. He does, however, like animal pictures and animal-oriented YouTube videos, which he thinks help lighten him up. “At first there was some kind of irony involved. But then I just sort of realized that I really enjoy looking at them,” said Mr. Gottlieb. “There’s a weird rush you get from it. I’m not sure why. It’s sort of embarrassing to say that.”
When he was head writer for a VH1 show called Web Junk, he was always trying to shoehorn in a particular video of a monkey rescuing a kitten from a chicken. “It’s a good narrative,” he said.
The Web is currently awash in good narratives involving animals. Did you see the duckling feeding carp? What about the cat and the pug fighting over treats? Proliferating faster than political blogs, Web sites devoted to kitties, puppies and interspecies kindness have been multiplying like bunnies across cyberspace. DailyPuppy, the Daily Cute, Cute Rush, Cute Funny Animals—not to mention the mother of all cute animal sites, Cuteoverload—are tapping a hidden vein of sentimentality in even the most calloused cynics. “I’ve gotten 45-year-old men writing me e-mails [saying], ‘I shouldn’t be doing this, but I come to your site,’” said Meg Frost, 35, the mastermind behind Cuteoverload. About 2.5 million people visit her site each month.
But why? In talking with admirers—both closeted and out—of animal pictures and videos on the Web, a recurring motif is escape. In the fifth year of a war (the horror of which has been so normalized, few of us ever talk about it), who wouldn’t want to spend their time snorgling (snuggling, only not quite, in cutespeak) bunnies by proxy instead of reading about car bombings? Working Americans are being laid off and having their homes foreclosed on as gas and food prices rise. Overseas, there is news of earthquakes, cyclones, and worldwide food shortages that have claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands, and, lest we forget, there’s the possibility of space debris hitting the earth and killing millions. (Last month’s Atlantic cover story called this scenario “inevitable,” in case you were planning to get a few hours of sleep anytime soon.) Oh, and global warming … And the mysterious disappearance of honey bees … And peak oil …
No wonder we’re experiencing (in the words of a recent Boston Phoenix story) a “cuteness surge.”
CUTENESS HAS BEGUN to break out of its prosh (read: precious) ghetto and soft-crunch (“gum,” as one would a baby’s flesh) more of our lives. Cute animals poke their button noses into supposedly serious sites like the Huffington Post (the Living section intermittently runs a “Daily Dose of Cute”), the BBC and Andrew Sullivan’s blog, where the pundit has posted videos of a hedgehog eating a carrot and a dog on a water slide as “Mental Health Breaks” between posts about the election and the war. The just-released trailer for the new Owen Wilson-Jennifer Aniston movie, Marley & Me (based on the best-selling memoir about one lovable, terrible dog), is perhaps the biggest-budget cute video ever: It’s one long, slo-mo tracking shot of a Labrador puppy running on the beach, his ears flapping like windsocks, his itty-bitty paws skimming the surf, set to the triumphant theme music from Chariots of Fire. Try watching that clip at your desk without squealing out loud like a little girl at the petting zoo. Seriously. Try it.
“It’s embarrassing if you’re a particular kind of person—a Manhattan media person, like somebody who considers himself to be thoughtful or have a generally elevated level of media consumption,” said one such Manhattan media person who wished to keep his name out of this article. “You don’t want to be aligned with moms. Because literally, this is the meat and potatoes of their Internet consumption.”
When the stress of her job is too much, Alyson Levy, 36, a member of PFFR, the production company behind MTV2’s demented pseudo-kids-show Wonder Showzen and Adult Swim’s Xavier: Renegade Angel, looks at photos of Brussels Griffin puppies she finds on the Web, since she and her husband have one of the bearded toy-size dogs. “It’s very relaxing. … It’s kind of like a pure happiness.” Sometimes she finds herself spending 45 minutes at a time looking at puppies.
A site called PuppyWar, which polls users on dogs’ cuteness relative to one another, helped save a lawyer, who preferred not be named (“my love for animals on the Internet is so totally inconsistent with my desire to seem professional”), while she crammed for exams during law school. “It’s much more entertaining to look at puppies than read about torts,” she said.