Another bear video surfaced and went viral last Saturday thanks to its having all the typical ingredients for a video that pops off online: cute animals, a dash of drama, and an inspiring if kitschy message. But as more people took a closer look at the video, observers found a sinister subtext that has audiences re-assessing the cuteness.
In the video, a grizzly bear and her cub face a harrowing climb up a steep, snowy mountain. Tension builds as the mother reaches the top, but the cub falls behind, climbing and sliding in spurts. When the cub almost joins its mother, the camera zooms in and the mother sabotages its cub’s efforts, sending it sliding farther down than ever before, little paws grasping as it slides out of frame. Despite the setback, the cub persists, restarting the climb until he finally makes it to safety. Reunited, the mother and cub walk away. It’s the perfect story of persistence and patience.
The footage of this encounter was captured by a drone and hosted on ViralHog, who helped it go viral after Twitter user @ziyatong posted it last Saturday with the caption, “We could all learn a lesson from this baby bear: Look up & don’t give up.” The tweet accumulated over 21 million views, 180,000 retweets and 510,000 likes, adding to the 450,000 views on the original video.
When the video first took off, many viewers found it meaningful, citing the importance and payoff of determination and struggle. But when biologists and drone pilots saw the video, rather than inspiring an example of persistence, they saw yet another instance of how overzealous drone pilots are harassing animals and infringing on their natural habitats.
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The hidden plight of these bears was first publicized by Clayton T. Lamb, Ph.D. candidate at University of Alberta who researches grizzly bears. As he explained to the Atlantic, while the situation appears natural in the video, it was almost certainly induced by the drone’s presence.
“There’s no reason a female would normally accept that risk, unless they were forced into it,” Lamb says. Combining the little time it took for the camera to zoom in on the cub with the mother’s unexpected swipe, Lamb noted that the mother, clearly bothered by the drone’s presence, attempted to protect its cub by pushing it away from danger.
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The whole episode sheds light on the extent to which the cinematic, awe-inspiring clips enabled drones gloss over a critical trait of the technology: their loud buzzing, which can be more annoying and disruptive than cars, according to research by NASA. And that’s for humans, who know what drones can are. Drone sounds can interrupt animals’ survival, driving them from food sources and chasing them long distances. Research by Mark A. Ditmer from the University of Minnesota reveals that even a flyover could cause high stress in bears, measured by spikes in heart rate.
ViralHog’s video isn’t a one-off encounter: Sophie Gilbert, assistant professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Idaho compiled a 121-video playlist of wildlife encounters with drones. But Gilbert doesn’t demonize the technology itself, and shows that properly used drones can give biologists non-invasive access to hard-to-reach places, opening doors to new troves of data.
All that said, this to happen on a consistent basis, regulation has to catch up to the new technology. Apart from the FAA’s broad rules on drone usage, which mainly focus on people and other aircraft, the network of regulations lacks cohesion, and varies wildly from state to state. The National Park Service has also banned unmanned aircraft in most parks, leading to more confusion about where drones can and can’t go. In the meantime, researchers from the University of Adelaide developed a code of practices for safe drone use around wildlife, though these standards have not yet been widely adopted.
But it doesn’t take regulation to recognize distress, only common sense. No viral shot is worth harassing animals or infringing on their natural habitat.