— It takes a village of some 4 million to raise six cuddly pups, or at least to ogle them for hours on end.
What began as a way for a San Francisco couple to keep tabs on their pet Shiba Inu dog Kika’s litter while they were at work has become an unlikely Web sensation. Viewers flock to the Internet site Ustream.com to monitor the 5-week-old brood’s growth, watching the energetic pups paw and play with one another and have at it with their chew toys.
TODAY peppered its Saturday program with peeks into the puppy’s lair, giving the brood of six their first network exposure outside their spreading fame on the Internet. Speaking via satellite with TODAY’s Lester Holt and Amy Robach, Ustream co-founder Brad Hunstable explained how a private dogsitting webcam became a worldwide phenomenon.
“It started out in the Ustream offices; our employees found the puppies when they only had one or two viewers,” Hunstable told Holt and Robach.
“We fell in love with them, we forwarded them to our friends and our friends forwarded it to their friends. The next thing you know, mothers were forwarding it to daughters and daughters were forwarding it to mothers. Over 4 million people in the last week have tuned in to watch.”
What’s now become America’s favorite time-waster actually has its roots in U.S. troops serving overseas. Brad Hunstable and pal John Ham established the Web site in 2006 while serving as Army cadets at West Point. They were frustrated that communication between soldiers and their families was largely limited to phone calls or instant messages on the Internet, and then with only one family member at a time.
The soldiers, along with Dr. Gyula Feher, struck upon the idea of creating Ustream as a live interactive video broadcast. Anyone with a camera and computer could plug in and tap the site and interact endlessly with other people logged onto the site.
While Ustream broadcasts a wide variety of high school and college sporting events, concerts, other entertainment offerings and even family reunions, it took the little pups from the City by the Bay to truly capture the world’s imagination and put the site on the map.
The universal reaction among viewers is “Awwww … how cute!” as the fuzzy brown look-alike pups live their lives out in a “Truman Show”-like existence. Viewers know the pups by name and by the color of their collars. They include boys Aki (green collar), Akoni (black collar), Ando (blue collar) and girls Autumn (purple collar), Ayumi (yellow collar) and Amaya (red collar).
Early broadcasts showed mom Kika, an exotic breed of Japanese hunting dog, nursing her pups — but now that the litter is largely weaned from their mother, Kika only makes the occasional cameo. The camera is focused on a large doggy bed where the canines romp — when they’re tuckered out, they snuggle in an endless array of configurations.
If productivity is down in offices around the world, the furry siblings are a likely culprit.
“Typically, what we’ve seen is people are putting it on while they are at work, just to kind of get away and get a breath of cuteness,” Hunstable told Holt and Robach.
The pups’ owners, who have thus far remained anonymous, originally set up the Puppy cam to make sure the litter didn’t get into harm’s way while they were out of the house. And it’s come in handy. In an interview with People magazine, they said they hurried home twice when they noticed some puppies had gone astray.
But they also discovered the Internet can spread news of online cuteness like wildfire. Numbers of Puppy cam watchers continue to mushroom — even on a sleepy Saturday morning, some 10,000 people watched the puppies on their computers while TODAY spoke with Hunstable and Ustream co-founder Ham.
One of the puppies’ human parents told People there’s more than just fun and games involved with the success of the Puppy cam. “We’ve received a number of e-mails from people who are in hospitals battling various diseases who have told us that they look to the Shiba Inu puppy cam as a way to liven up their spirits.”
But in heartbreaking news for the folks who have become attached (or even addicted) to the cute-and-then-some brood, there’s no chance of taking in one of the litter. The owners say all puppies are spoken for at this point.
But Ham told Holt and Robach that Ustream isn’t going to let their star attractions get away that easily.
“The adorable little guys are all going to great homes here in about three weeks, and we’re actually going to send webcams with them so we can follow them through the Internet in their new homes,” Ham said.