(photo by Courtesy Ustream)

CITYWIDE — With the advent of free video hosting websites, a new market has opened up for a very particular kind of entertainment — cute animal videos.

An offshoot of this phenomenon came to Santa Monica in the fall of 2008 when a local resident left a few nuts on her porch for neighboring squirrels and, after the squirrels continued to return, came up with the idea to capture the action live with a webcam, calling it “Bad Manors Squirrel Diner.”

The show’s creator, Kim — who agreed to speak with us under the condition of not using her last name — started a profile for the show on Ustream.tv and quickly gained regular followers.

After realizing “it wasn’t exactly puppy cam where you can have non-stop animal action,” she put a plastic alligator on the porch and “it gradually got out of control,” Kim said. “Now there’s a new scene out there every day.”

The show started earning more and more followers who enjoyed her quirky use of props and makeshift sets and, of course, the squirrels.

Another contributing factor to the show’s success is, perhaps, the celebrity cameos. There are guest appearances, in action figure form, by everyone from Gandhi to Yoshi, Jane Goodall to lawn gnomes, nuns to zebras to the presidential likenesses of Mt. Rushmore. In the broadcasts, squirrels run up to the toys, pose, snoop around, and explore the sets. One squirrel even enters a voting booth, providing a cute endorsement of a prized American political process.

The broadcast titles allude to the Kentucky Derby, Cinco de Mayo, and the infamously sensationalized Balloon Boy incident, creating a combination of adorable and pop culture minus the sanitizing effects of Disney.

With 650 followers at the time of printing and almost 320,000 views according to Ustream.tv, the show has achieved Internet success beyond what Kim anticipated.

“At one point, viewers would send toys, but I had to ask them to stop when I ran out of storage space,” said Kim. Now, she settles for shopping at Puzzle Zoo or online.

The live broadcast format complements the squirrels’ come-and-go routine and Kim emphasizes that her show does not edit any footage, aside from the occasional title screen.

Though “Bad Manors” broadcasts from Ustream.tv, Kim also posted some videos on YouTube of which “Bad Manors Squirrel Diner Slideshow!” has earned the most new viewers.

The busiest day for “Bad Manors” came last Christmas with about 47,000 views. Waiting for the squirrels were a couple hundred tiny boxes with walnuts in them. According to Kim, families gathered around their computers all over the world to watch the lucky squirrels rifle through the boxes and sometimes run away with them.

“I’m sure there are some Santa Monica residents who, on Christmas morning, would have seen squirrels running across the telephone wires with little red gift boxes in their mouths,” said Kim.

As for the squirrels, the number of daily bushy-tailed visitors is now about six or eight. Their compensation is a bin full of walnuts, though Kim admitted, “Originally, I fed them peanuts until I learned they wouldn’t provide the calcium squirrels need to survive.”

Kim’s human neighbors, for the most part, have a sense of humor and “appreciate that the show entertains people all over the world,” she said.

The show is not simply a manner of indulgent fun, however.

“Bad Manors” is shown in school classrooms to raise environmental awareness in an entertaining manner, and the show’s store on CafePress.com sends 100 percent of proceeds to animal charities.

In spite of the show’s philanthropic inclinations, “Bad Manors” is not without its detractors.

One viewer criticized Kim for “humiliating the squirrels.” Kim retorted, “As if there is a squirrel in therapy somewhere because he ate walnuts with an Einstein action figure.”

Nonetheless, the lightheartedness of “Bad Manors” extends beyond the realm of simple amusement.

“A woman who contacted us said she was caring for a friend with cancer at the end of her life,” said Kim. “’Bad Manors’ was their one smile each day.”

Whether viewers are looking for consolation or merely want to experience the hilarity of squirrel antics in a live broadcast, Bad Manors can provide both. After all, there are very few places where you can see a Santa Monica squirrel running amok at a wedding or playing the drums in a band with Jesus and Albert Einstein on the guitars.

The show’s tagline, “Weird Squirrels. Weird Stuff,” clearly speaks volumes.

To follow the squirrels, visit www.ustream.tv/badmanors.

news@www.smdp.com

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