April the Giraffe: An unplanned social experiment and what we can learn from it

Viral videos are not new. Every few weeks, something will be posted in a forum such as YouTube or Facebook; a few friends will share the video with one another, and then suddenly, that video is being watched by millions. The most recent viral video takes this to a new level. April the Giraffe was not just a video, it was a live camera streaming online, allowing viewers to watch a pregnant giraffe and ultimately watch the birth of her calf.

So, what makes the viral giraffe cam different than other viral videos? The answer is simple: the length of the video. Instead of a clip lasting several minutes, April was streaming live for days, and then weeks. And people were tuning in consistently, day after day, for hours at a time — that was new. April delivered a healthy baby boy calf on Saturday, April 15, 2017. On April 17, Good Morning America estimated that more than 1.2 million viewers watched the birth live on their computers or mobile devices.  Jordan Patch, the owner of Animal Adventure Park, estimates that more than 300 million people viewed April the Giraffe since the park installed the live camera.

So what is it about this giraffe that captured the attention of so many people from all over the world? The answer might surprise you. While it is true that people first watched April because they were hoping to see the birth of her baby, 82% of survey respondents stated that seeing the birth was initially why they started watching. The reason they continued to watch might give us some insights into a societal issue that impacts many of our older, retired, or disabled friends and neighbors. There are a large number of people who lack connections with family, neighbors, and/or peers, and the result is a feeling of isolation and ultimately, loneliness.

I’ll start my explanation by sharing a little bit of information about myself because I think it helps to put my theory into perspective. I am a 48-year-old divorced woman, with two grown children who live on their own. I have two cats, a dog, and I am currently disabled as a result of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I do not socialize with anyone in person. I rarely leave my house except for counseling and doctor appointments. The last time I attempted to go grocery shopping, I walked out leaving my cart in the middle of the produce section because I had a flashback and I could not keep my brain grounded in reality; the fear was too strong and my fight or flight instincts had taken over.  Flight won.

I started watching April the Giraffe because I was curious. Her story had been highlighted by media outlets on, or about, February 22. When I started watching the Facebook Live Feed, it was through the CBS Denver station. At CBS Denver I found that there were thousands of other individuals all “chatting” about the expectant calf. There was something very calming about watching April. And there was something reassuring about finding so many other people doing the same thing I was doing. While I did not realize it at first, what I had found was a place where I could just be me; I could be isolated and connected at the same time. I could engage in a discussion if I wanted to or I could just watch the conversations unfold from others. I wasn’t alone. 59% of survey respondents said that they continued watching because they appreciated knowing that others were doing the same thing they were doing at the same time. 64% said that they would have watched even if April wasn’t pregnant, which indicates that they were not watching because of the finale (the birth), they were watching for some other experience.

Over time, the conversations shifted, the people who were chatting varied from hour to hour, but there was a level of consistency that made me feel safe in a social arena; that is hard to find when you can’t leave your house.

Two weeks ago, on the CBS Denver Facebook Live Feed, I chatted with a few women in the United Kingdom who were talking about going outside to hang their clothes on the line to dry. They also talked about how they iron all of their clothes with the exception of their knickers. We discussed the value of the clothes dryer in the United States, and how irons were in our homes, but how we couldn’t recall the last time we had pulled them out. Last week, I had a conversation with a group of people about what everyone was cooking for dinner. That discussion led to exchanging of recipes, and a new group was created on Facebook, April’s World Wide Recipes. I also participated in conversations about health, welfare, children, and pets. And when there was a terrorist attack in London, a missile strike in Syria, and a shooting in an elementary school, the April-viewing community mourned and shared the loss together with thought and prayers, and after some period of time, supportive words to help others see more than just the pain in the world, but also the joy of a shared experience. All of these experiences reminded me of a time before the Internet, of being young and watching my mom sit on the front steps with others moms in the neighborhood, as they talked and laughed while their children played together. The world seemed infinitely smaller, and safer, than it does today. And the connection to others appeared to be more available than they are now

Prior to becoming disabled I was working on a research project related to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). The ACE Study is a Kaiser Permanente-CDC study that established a correlation between childhood trauma and the long-term health impacts caused by an overload of adrenaline and cortisol on the body and brain. (ACEs Science 101.) This may not seem related to my theory about the viewing community of April the Giraffe, but I think there is a connection. The founder of ACEs Too High and ACEs Connection, Jane Stevens, has reiterated to me (and many others) what research has taught us: that the solution to overcoming childhood trauma is through building resilience. (Got Your ACE Score?…and resilience score?) And resilience can be built by increasing relationships with caring adults. But how do you increase relationships within your community if you can’t leave your house? April the Giraffe gave me, and thousands of others, the opportunity to do that. In my opinion, busy lives and the lack of community connections are the new cultural norm. Children being raised today may never see their parents sit on the front steps of the house with the neighbors, having conversations, and connecting with one another. But people closer to my age, or older…they remember. And they realize that they don’t have the same options their parents did. The shift to online communications, cell phones, and text messaging has created a gap in relationships for a large number of our aging population.

In the process of writing this, I took time to check my theory of isolation and loneliness with other people who were part of the giraffe viewing community. I started my informal research by creating a Facebook group called Live Cam Park and Zoo Support Group. And then I waited to see if anyone joined. After one week I had four group members, including myself. A week later, I had seven.  And then I changed the name of the group to April the Giraffe Live Cam Support Group. Three weeks later, today, there are over 10,000 members. Two other groups with similar names have even larger membership numbers: 60,000 for one and 28,000 for the other. So, why did the name of my group make a difference? It’s because people need a reason to connect. If April the Giraffe were a block party instead of an Internet phenomenon, we’d walk right out into the street (the block party) with burger in hand and say hi to the neighbors. But if there wasn’t a block party, and you were sitting in your house eating a burger, would you walk out into the street to eat your burger for no reason? In my opinion the success of these groups is the result of people looking for opportunities to increase their connections to others around a shared experience. It’s the shared experience that creates the opportunity for the relationship, and the opportunity to build resilience.

The growth of my Facebook group was not enough evidence for me to feel that my theory had merit, but it did keep me on my research path. Next, I created an online survey targeting the individuals who belonged to these groups. Who were the members? What segment of the population was drawn to April the Giraffe? And while my survey was informal and certainly not scientifically verified, it does provide insight into the individuals who are part of the giraffe viewing community.

The first factor that supports my theory is the ages of the individuals who responded – 87% are age 50 or older and 56% are 60 years or older. Second, 66% are either retired or disabled. Think about that. 66% of the people who were actively watching April the Giraffe did not have a daily, or consistent reason to the leave their homes and engage with others. What if these individuals did not have Internet access, of if they did not have a computer or a smartphone? When asked how their lives would be different once the live cam was taken down, only 12% said they would be happy to get back to their normal routine. Let me repeat that: Only 12% were happy to return to their life as it had previously existed before their experience of “watching” April the Giraffe. All other respondents indicated that they would miss something about this experience: the social connections with others, the opportunity to check in and see how others were doing, and the ability to watch April. In the comments on the survey, a significant number of respondents stated that they looked forward to getting up in the morning to see how everyone was doing. In just six or seven weeks, these individuals had built April into their daily routines, and in doing so, each participated in a shared experience that added value to their lives.

CBS Denver announced its final live feed on the evening of April 17.  Several thousand people joined the chat conversation to say their goodbyes and express sorrow over the completion of this extended event.

April the Giraffe, and Animal Adventure Park, never knew they would be instigating a social experiment. However, with the time that passed and the number of people involved, the opportunity to learn about each other and to acknowledge the benefit of a shared experience cannot be overlooked.

12 responses

  1. It’s surprising to see how many people are in the same situation, missing a connection with the outside world, we enjoy the chats with people from all over and the love towards nature that brings people together..

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  2. What a sweetly surprising story, Leisa. It shows that connection can happen anywhere, anytime. Even if one of nature’s 4-legged creatures is the (initial) prompt for that connection. What happens next is anyone’s guess. So glad to know you found a connection; but more importantly, a community of like-minded, kindred netizens. Be well.

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  3. Watched on different sites, sometimes through a TV station around the country and sometimes direct with the CAM, and probably checked three or four times a day, and sat mesmerized the day of delivery, had just been waiting for the tootsie’s to protrude first… and then the head, then the calf was born, after the wait, so want to name him Tootsie. Made a donation, and it goes to their upkeep, and Giraffes in the wild and also a non profit… and glad we all made a connection in so many ways, even those friends who said check in like Leslie and Mel… and finally Barbara who let me know we’re on for April 15th 2017. We are calling him Tootsie anyway.

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  4. Leisa, what can I say. I’ve enjoyed reading your rants on facebook. Now you are an accomplished journalist who is revisiting subjects and making great points. Not that I expected anything less, and i actually read the entire thing. So you kept my interest! Love you!

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  5. I enjoyed your story. I also looked forward to waking up and seeing April and Oliver beautiful faces no. Matter what time of day or night it has been. I’m going to so miss them when the Live Cams go away.. I HAVE MADE LOTS OF FRIENDS TOO.

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  6. This article is spot on, at least for me. I joined the CBS Den chat at the end of Feb and stayed through the birth. I also joined a chat on TinyKittens through their YouTube feed. You see like you, I also seldom leave the house. I only shop locally (very small town) because that’s the extent of my “comfort zone”. I too have PTSD as well as frequent panic attacks.

    The chat is a way for me to connect exactly as you described. I can be home where I feel secure and yet still be an active part of something.

    You did an excellent job writing this article. Thank you!! And I look forward to joining your page, I didn’t know about until now.

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  7. Leisa what great insight! I totally agree with everything you have said. As I read this I laughed about some of our “discussions” especially the one about names for “lady parts” that could have gotten very “off track and rude” but it didn’t and became downright funny. Recipes exchanged, pets discussed and everything else you mentioned certainly gave us a welcomed break from the tragedy of our world. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who shed tears that last night of CBS Denver’s chat. I cherish the friendships although perhaps short lived. God bless everyone involved in this experience.

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  8. Thank you for a well-written and “right on” discussion that had been in my mind for weeks! In fact, I told my husband I thought so many people were watching because it was a way not to feel so alone in today’s world where it seems we are all “isolated” to some degree. April became a gathering place to go when you were alone–either actually or just feeling that way! And I find that a sad statement about the world we live in. Yes, we need to have more front step encounters with friends. We need to sit in the yard and help grandma snap beans, or hull peas, or shuck corn instead of thinking about the GMOs we are feeding the kids! Again, THANK YOU for a lovely article that has succinctly explained why we have been so fascinated with April’s baby. You have touched us all and helped us understand ourselves a little better!

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  9. Great article and I was one of the viewers!! I agree completely with what the writer has stated. This experience took on a life of its own. God bless all!!!

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  10. What an amazing and warm story of fostering connection within people, especially older populations who feel disengaged. I felt very touched and would like the author to know that her talents for writing and research brought home some new and creative ideas for me. I have been nourishing my own soft spot for ACES and this is right on. Bravo—really excellent, insightful work!

    Susan Embry Community Against Violence Media Director 575-779-1145

    >

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  11. I had no idea that the April videos were that big of a deal or that so many people watched – or the reason. It likely explains an isolated friend’s fascination with the TinyCats FB page. Huh. Thanks for teaching me something today. Now I have to decide what to do with what I know. Will definitely reach out to my isolated friend….

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