Each morning, as the sun rises over her Indiana farm, Erica Hopkins wakes up and tends to the goats. She has three major tasks: milk her herd of Nigerian Dwarf dairy goats, bottle-feed the babies, and, of course, respond to the Twitch chat watching it all go down.
Hopkins has been raising goats for eight years and streaming them on Twitch since January. I could see Hopkins on stream the day I called her. On that day, she tacked on a fourth task: talking to me. “I’m sure you can hear the goats in the background,” Hopkins laughed. “Sorry, now my cat’s begging for milk.”
Hopkins’ goats are not the only animals starring in their own broadcasts. There’s a small, but dedicated group of streamers that are curating educational and entertaining streams centred on all sorts of animals.
There are ducks, chickens, and parakeets. A broadcast of backyard wildlife: cardinals, racoons, and neighbourhood cats. Another stream focuses purely on bees, the progress of a hive as they get acclimated to their new environment.
For many, the emerging subculture of animal streams is a way to connect to an atmosphere and experience that might otherwise be absent in their world — a connection to nature, the environment, and the animals that live there. It’s a way to see animals in a way you might not otherwise be able to see them, on-demand, at any time of day you might need them.
Erica Hopkins intended to stream her goats via her own website, until she discovered Twitch. “My 16-year-old loves to play Fortnite,” she said. “He always talks about the people who stream — I don’t even know what their names are.” She visited the site, and it looked like it would work. After all, she already had cameras set up in the barn to monitor the goats, primarily to check in on them when they are in labour.
Twitch is an unlikely but workable fit for animal streamers. In 2016, Twitch introduced IRL streaming. Before then, non-gaming content was mostly against the rules. IRL made it fair to stream while out exploring the world — something that hasn’t always been ideal — or just chatting with viewers. At launch, unattended streams, like animal or pet ones, were explicitly against the rules. That rule has now changed, opening up the door for all-day animal streaming goodness. But it still brings with it its own issues.
There’s no specific Twitch category for animal streams. One avid viewer named Nathan, who goes by “Challenger_Unknown” on Twitch, has created a Discord channel called “Animal Streaming Community” to bring the community together and make it easier for viewers to find new animal channels to watch.
“I’m always waiting for someone to tell me, ‘That’s a dumb idea,’” said Nathan, who asked that we not use his last name. “So far, everyone has the opposite reaction.”
Most animal streamers find themselves in the IRL and Just Chatting categories, but others, like Hopkins, tend to prefer the ASMR tag, which is intended for streamers that produce soothing, tingle-inducing sounds — tapping plastic, skin brushing against skin. People like to hear the sounds of the farm and the animals that live on it.
A study commissioned by BBC Earth found that watching nature videos, like its own show Planet Earth, made people happier, similar to how they feel when they are “inspired by exposure to or interaction with the natural world.”
Animal streams aren’t necessarily meant to be a replacement for being in actual nature, but a way to get closer to the ecology of our own world, a way tailored to the inherently technological world we live in. In the midst of a climate crisis, one that will impact humans and animals, that reminder of how nature influences us and our behaviour is important.
Hopkins noted that viewers often use her stream to chat about mental health. “A lot of my viewers have mental health problems,” Hopkins said. “There’s a lot of people who have PTSD. [My stream is] a little sanctuary for them. There’s a little community within my community that are specifically there for the mental health benefits of it.” They use her stream and others like it to curate a space that feels safe, engaging, and calm.
Though perhaps “calm” isn’t always the right word. Have you ever heard a goat scream?
Another popular animal streamer is 43-year-old Utah-based broadcaster who asked Kotaku to identify him as “Farmer Spence.” He runs a few animal streams including OurChickenLife (chickens, bunnies, and sheep) and Dash Ducks, and he, too, found that viewers come to his broadcasts to relax, and to get a view of animals they ordinarily wouldn’t.
“It’s a different level of watching animals,” Spence said. “You get to get closer to them. You get to understand their sound better and the personalities and seeing them interact with each other as animals, and not acting differently because I happen to be out there with a bit of food in my hand.”
Natalie Legresley, a viewer and moderator for both Farmer Spence’s and Hopkins’ streams, told Kotaku that she tunes in to see the animals, but also for the sense of community.
“We have had the pleasure of being a part of many baby births on [Hopkins’] stream and it really makes you feel a part of the farm to watch and share special moments like that,” she said. “After watching the babies being born, we get to watch them grow and that is truly amazing.”
Aaron Endersbe, a 45-year-old United Kingdom-based streamer who highlights his bees, watches his own stream when he’s away from the hive. “Having the girls quietly buzz in my ears throughout the day at work is quite soothing,” he said. “I have spoken to many people that like to check in for 5 to 10 minutes and just see what they’re up to.”
At first glance, you might think there isn’t much to see on Endersbe’s stream, which is called Live From the Hive. His camera is trained close-up on a wooden box, its narrow opening right across the bottom. The bees move in and out all day, busy with their seemingly endless chores. If you’re not looking closely, all the movements can blend together. But Endersbe said that life right outside the hive is exciting, and one can learn a lot about bees.
“People like to spot the colour of pollen coming in on the legs,” Endersbe said. “All plants have different coloured pollen. Bees will only visit one type of plant at a time. They don’t mix and match. One that is very evident at the moment is a light grey colour. This is coming from blackberry bushes that are all blooming here at the moment.”
He said there are other things to look out for while watching, too, like washboarding, a weird, rhythmic behaviour that people don’t really understand. A whole bunch of bees will gather on the outside of the hive, often packed tightly together, and shift back and forth.
“It is suspected that they are polishing and cleaning the front of the hive,” Endersbe said. “My bees often do this in the evening just before the sun does down. It looks like they’re having a little dance party.”
In the early morning, viewers will see the nurse bees removing dead bees from the hive and ejecting them out of the main entrance. Throughout the day, Endersbe said viewers can look out for guard bees that are “scrutinising incoming foragers.” Bees get a quick look over (and sometimes a quick cleansing) before they’re let back into the main hive.
But you don’t have to just watch. Farmer Spence has additional tools available on his streams so that viewers can interact with the animals on some level. When he’s not tending to the farm, Farmer Spence is a programmer with a company that created a vending machine powered by cryptocurrency.
He’s set up a system that lets viewers send Twitch bits or BitCoin to a machine on the farm that spits out mealworms. When the chickens hear the churn of the machine they rush to the feeding dock and peck, peck, peck away at the food. One particularly great moment was when a viewer sent $US5 ($7) worth of food instead of .50 cents ($0.74) and started a feeding frenzy.
The interactivity lets viewers feel invested in the chickens on another level — like they’re taking care of them, too. Farmer Spence also uses a system that allows viewers to choose which of his multiple cameras they’d like to see from, a system that he’s shared with other broadcasters like Hopkins.
Hopkins might not have a Bitcoin-for-goat-food system, but she does have a donation-powered mobile that spins above the goats and plays them a lullaby. She also lets her viewers name the baby goats that are born throughout the year. Letting the Internet name things is generally considered a bad idea, but in this case, they have to stick with rules. Each year, the goats have to have names that start with a certain letter of the alphabet. Also, since the goats are registered through the American Dairy Goat Association, they can’t include obscenities or vulgarities.
“There are a couple of really funny ones that don’t offend but crack me up,” Hopkins told me, rattling off a few names for this year’s letter, which is H: Halle Baaarry, H.R. Pufnstuf, Happy Gilmore, Halpert Jim Jr, or Herdy Gurdy.
There’s also a goat named “Hlemonade,” she said. “They wanted a little gold doe to [be named] Lemonade, but due to the rules it couldn’t start with an L, so the H is silent.”
Anything can happen on the stream, which is why viewers keep coming back. Each day, the animals will do different things. There will be new sounds, like rain or a goat’s weird scream, and new views, but the same animals they viewers have come to know and love. There’s always a surprise. Sometimes, it’s a surprise for the broadcasters, too — like the time Farmer Spence reached down into the chicken’s nesting box and found a pile of baby bunnies.
“I reached down to gather an egg and I’m like, ‘That’s not an egg,’” he laughed. “There was a big pile of fur and little bunnies. I found them, surprisingly, the night before I was going to get her fixed.”
The element of surprise is why the 24/7 distinction for most of these streams is important. The animals are still on when the human broadcaster isn’t there, and that lets viewers see animals acting naturally, doing the things they do when humans aren’t there to distract them. It’s a reality show with more reality. But the 24/7 system isn’t always ideal for the broadcaster.
To apply to become a Partner, which is a tier level that unlocks benefits like additional emote slots and revenue options for select streamers, a Twitch streamer must meet three goals: stream for 25 hours in the last 30 days, stream for 12 unique days in the last 30 days, and reach an average concurrent viewer count of 75.
The first two achievements are easy for animal streamers, since their streams are always on. But it’s the average-viewers requirement that trips things up. Keeping the stream on for so long spreads out the viewers. There are often slow hours where there are few viewers watching, which brings down the average and makes it hard to hit the 75 mark, even if peak hours bring in lots of people. That’s why most animal streamers haven’t hit Partner status.
It would be nice to have the perks of a Twitch partnership, but for Farmer Spence, that’s not the point. He said he just wants to give the viewers what they want. For some, that’s being able to watch animals sleep.
After all, his viewers have grown fond of the animals, caring for them as if they were their own. “I have been watching some of the animal streams for over seven months and have watched them grow and learned their personalities,” Natalie Legresley, the viewer and moderator for Farmer Spence and Hopkins’ stream, said.
“They have almost become like my own pets in a funny way.”
Nicole Carpenter is a freelance writer and reporter from Massachusetts. Find her on Twitter @sweetpotatoes.