“Oh, now it’s just cruel,” exclaims a young woman in a 2016 YouTube video. Her male companion has just dropped a live mouse into a tank containing an arowana – a large predatory fish – and it is desperately trying to escape.
“Jesus fuck,” she cries as the fish takes a tentative bite. Her tone has shifted from pity to hesitant excitement. You can hear the conflict in her voice. Should she be entertained? Or sympathetic?
Spoiler alert: the arowana ultimately swallows the rodent. The video has been viewed over 6.5 million times. Thousands of other YouTube clips depict variations on the theme: gigantic centipedes devouring mice, deceptively derpy frogs cramming rats down their gullets, and caimans snapping up rabbits.
YouTube technically prohibits “content where animals are encouraged or coerced to fight by humans” and has taken steps to remove content depicting obvious animal cruelty, but a spectrum of staged animal conflict appears to be acceptable. Viewers flock to channels like Desert Wolf Armory (198,000 subscribers) and Gatorpool Gators (77,100 subscribers) to see creators feeding their exotic pets a range of other animals.
While some criticise the videos in the comments, many more express their support. One fan writes: “Him: Warning! Graphic content; Me: that’s why I’m here.” Another argues: “How can someone get mad at this? It's 100 percent nature.”
Some YouTubers have surprisingly nuanced explanations for why they engage in these practices and why they film them. They argue that their pets are predatory animals who need adequate nutrition and stimulation, and live prey provides both.
“There's a full spectrum of life that the animal should be able to experience, even if it is attached to you,” Marek Gregorarz tells VICE. Based in North Barrington, Illinois, where he runs a natural pet food company, the 45-year-old uploads videos of his piranhas to his YouTube channel, the Bearski Method.
He feeds his school with live fish and frogs, which he harvests from the wild, and argues that feeding them in this manner allows the fish to recreate their natural social dynamics, with a dominant individual leading the attack and its subordinates following. Wild red-bellied piranhas do form loose schools, with larger individuals typically getting the first bite; Gregorarz reasons that promoting this behavior makes for happier pets. It’s worth noting, though, that fruit and carrion also comprise a significant portion of their diets in the wild.
Parker Settecase, 29, who lives in Deerfield, Illinois and works at a Christian sports organization, tells a similar story. His channel, Parker's Pensées, found unexpected viral success in videos of his enormous African bullfrogs devouring live mice. According to his research, these frogs can be fed insects but require a larger prey item once a month in order to meet their nutritional needs. He casually popped a video of it on YouTube. Eight months later it had garnered over a million views. It now has 37 million.
Despite his success, he remains trepidatious. “I'm actually still wrestling through whether I should do any [more] live mice,” he confides. “I know that YouTube wants me to, but I'm thinking: might it cause undue harm to this animal?”
Some creators pointedly swerve this kind of content. Brian Barczyk, who runs a reptile business and zoo, and has nearly three million subscribers, says that he feeds his reptiles humanely euthanized animals whenever possible. “There's really no benefit to feeding live [unless you have to],” he tells VICE.
It’s as much due to his personal aversion to live feeding as it is to mitigating any possible harm that defensive rodents might cause his snakes, a concern echoed by animal ethicist Clare Palmer of Texas A&M University.
“There are issues with feeding rats to snakes, because rats can attack the snakes and bite them and cause them lesions,” Palmer explains. Still, she notes that there may be a valid argument for live feeding. “If they only get dead [animals], they lose stimulation. That's bad for the snake. But that may depend on the species of snake and whether it's been brought up eating dead mice rather than live ones.”
As cockfighting and dogfighting are increasingly pushed underground in the UK and US, it’s perhaps not shocking that humanity’s innate bloodlust has found an outlet online. Though many of us find it revolting, there may be hard coding that perpetuates our desire to see death and violence. Reinforcement mechanisms in our brains react positively to the sights and sounds of hunting and warfare, likely a relic of ancient survival instincts.
Some live feeding scenarios might plausibly happen in the natural world (like this captive bass eats a tree frog – 12 million views and counting), which is grisly but perhaps ethically acceptable. Others seem more gladiatorial in nature and raise questions about the welfare of the animals involved. This montage of lizards, scorpions, mantises and other creatures duking it out has almost twice the number of views.
Is YouTube’s notorious algorithm pushing viewers toward more extreme feeding ‘battles’, even if done unintentionally? It’s conceivable, says Tristan Olsen, owner of Denver-based content creation company Venture. “It’s a cold beast,” he explains of the site. “It doesn’t really care what type of video it is serving you. It's only trying to make more money and keep you on its platform.”
Live feeding and battle videos have added narrative appeal: there is a story arc, a winner and a loser. This likely increases dwell time, which helps YouTube to monetize its platform through periodic advertisements. VICE reached out to YouTube for comment, but the company was close-lipped on the issue. When presented with several examples of live feedings and animal fights, head of policy communications Farshad Shadloo said simply: “The videos you sent over are not violative.” He declined to answer further questions.
The abundance of this type of content parallels another alarming YouTube trend. A substantial amount of literature claims that YouTube is responsible for driving viewers toward increasingly extreme rightwing political videos.
Researchers such as Penn State University political science professor Kevin Munger, however, point out that the predominance of right-leaning content on YouTube more likely reflects preexisting appetites among viewers.
Just as mainstream media has marginalized far-right views and forced people to seek content from other outlets, those who enjoy bloody animal spectacles can no longer while away their leisure hours at the dogfights and may have to find other ways of sating their predilections. Still, he has come to think that there may be something to the notion that viewers can be “extremised”, as he terms it, by related content.
“You can't create this kind of content out of nothing, but [YouTube] can exaggerate the features of the content that is already there,” he says.
It’s an exaggeration that capitalizes on our appetite for novelty, and even those who take issue with these sights may sometimes find it difficult to look away. What does that say about us? We don’t really know. Research on the feeding video phenomenon is nonexistent. But if you want to avoid feeding the beast within, it’s probably best to stay away from YouTube’s grisly side.