Fat Bear Week is an annual competition, nay, celebration, of fat bears everywhere -- although in this case, really just the ones in Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska. As the brown bears in the park prepare for hibernation, the bears gorge themselves on salmon running through the Brooks River, which helps them gain weight and get ready for a winter of rest.
That means that for a brief moment in time, the park is filled with fat bears. And the park, in collaboration with Explore.org and the Katmai Conservancy, pits different bears against each other in a playoff-esque bracket, where fat bear fans vote on their faves, until a victor is announced on October 5.
The voting comes complete with photos of the bears and their winter weight, always causing mass excitement on the internet as folks coo over the giant animals.
Last year, the Fat Bear Week web page had 1.6 million visits, with about 650,000 people actually participating in the voting, a spokesperson for Explore.org told CNN. Both numbers have steadily grown since the event started back in 2014, initially just as a single day. This year, the web page is on track to beat both numbers -- and there are a number of factors behind the week's continuing popularity.
Most people love cute chubby animals
The reason why the week, and the fat bears, go viral every year is actually part of a longer lineage of popular animal content on the internet, said Jessica Maddox, assistant professor of digital media technology at the University of Alabama. Pictures and videos of animals -- pandas rolling in the snow, corgi butts and cats doing literally anything -- have always been widely shared and are one of the most common types of viral content, she said.
It doesn't hurt that bears -- like Winnie the Pooh, Baloo in "The Jungle Book" or even Paddington -- are often depicted as warm and soft creatures in popular culture.
The pictures and videos act "as a reprieve from the negative news of the world," Maddox told CNN. "During the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, this feels especially true."
Candice Rusch, spokesperson for Explore.org, also thinks the week has come to represent "something positive, and even a little silly, in a time when it can feel like every story is negative."
"Fat Bear Week gives us a chance to have a little fun," Rusch said. "It lets us celebrate the fact that the salmon run was healthy enough to get the bears (to) their peak fat state. And who doesn't love how adorable the bears are as they round out in the fall?"
The yearly occasion, with its adorable, chubby bears, feels particularly suited for the internet, where those "cute" characteristics tend to be celebrated.
"Fat Bear Week in particular has all of the 'cute' characteristics we associate with animals online, and here, those characteristics are quite literally the point - roundness, perceived fluffiness, smushiness, etc," Maddox said, noting, though, that she would never approach them in the wild.
Still, cute animals are the epitome of social sharing on the internet, Maddox said, as seeing something "cute" invokes both the desire to interact with the object (think of seeing a cute dog on the street) or share a photo with a friend. The latter especially is part of what makes Fat Bear Week so fun.
And everyone likes a competition
But the week also gives people something to cheer for, without the stakes of, say, a playoff sports game.
"When you look at how much weight bears need to gain to survive six months of famine, you can't help but cheer them on. People love bears and they love a good competition," said Amber Kraft, interpretation and education program manager at the Katmai National Park and Preserve. "For us, we are happy to share because fat bears exemplify the richness of Katmai National Park and Bristol Bay, Alaska."
The park, in the southwest corner of Alaska, is home to approximately 2,200 bears, according to a survey done in 2004. In 2020, there were more than 90 individual bears, not including cubs, along the Brooks River, the 1.5-mile waterway where the salmon run, Kraft said. When preparing for hibernation, a dominant adult male might catch and eat more than 30 fish a day, and by the end of the fall, they can weigh over 1,000 pounds.