Who Needs Zoos? In Praise of Nature Cams

Rob Walker
Tech Columnist
July 2, 2014

Like many of you, I do everything I can to insulate myself from nature: My days are spent in air-conditioned, regularly exterminated environs, and dominated by digital screens.

Nevertheless: I’m thrilled at how much progress we’ve made in using those screens to observe raw nature and untamed wildlife.

And it’s not just me. The classic nature documentary is nothing new, but it’s a proliferating form whose popularity is both fed by and helps drive improvements in the latest video technology. Remote webcams that stream live feeds of wildlife draw startlingly large audiences. And amateur wildlife footage captured with GoPros and similar cameras and distributed on YouTube has practically become its own genre.

WATCH: 11 Videos of Animals Acting Out Against GoPro Cameras

Is there something a little funny (or sad) about this indirect method of enjoying the wild world, from the comfort of our home offices? Well, yes, probably.

But I think it’s a good thing anyway. In fact, I’d argue that the mediated wild has distinct advantages over, say, physical-world zoos — for animals and for us.

Looking at animals
A disclosure: I’ve always hated zoos. Caged animals depressed me as a child, and while I’m sure modern zoos are better than what I remember, I haven’t been able to bring myself to visit one in decades.

Yet I’m hardly a nature zealot. Having grown up in the country, I deeply appreciate the absence of snakes and cow pies in my day-to-day, and I’d prefer not to relive the experience of maneuvering a possum out of my bedroom.

I never even cared much for nature or wildlife documentaries, until a few years ago, when, out of nowhere, I found myself wallowing in nature docs by the hour.

It wasn’t something I bragged about, as I found it sort of embarrassing. But I’ve gradually come to realize that it’s a very popular habit — and one that can benefit technology, too. 

Progressions in digital documentation have constantly overlapped with the wild and natural world. “Some of the earliest experiments in moving images were designed to capture animals in motion,” Cynthia Chris, associate professor in the media culture department of City University of New York’s College of Staten Island and author of the book Watching Wildlife, pointed out to me recently.

Specifically: Eadweard Muybridge’s late-19th-century photographic experiments — capturing the full gallop of a horse in a series of images that could be “played” on a special device that resulted in a sort of proto-movie.

A history of documentary film in general could begin with a nature picture: Robert J. Flaherty’s 1922 Nanook of the North (though technically it was more of a docudrama) and track on through to the surprise 2005 smash March of the Penguins.

In 1963, Wild Kingdom began its long history of bringing wildlife imagery built around mini-narratives into millions of living rooms. In the cable era, nature programming became a staple of entire channels — Animal Planet, Discovery, National Geographic, and so on.

It’s not a category that enjoys much scrutiny from TV critics or chattering-class pundits. But media companies pushing technological boundaries seem to be aware of it. Netflix, for instance, is introducing a higher-quality video format called UltraHD 4K. The programming available so far? Breaking Bad, House of Cards, selected movies — and a set of nature documentaries.

Sure, wildlife shows are heavily edited. Chris also points out that as such programming proliferates, it’s taken on the tropes of reality TV, and too often focuses on fear — dangerous sharks, menacing snakes, and so on.

And obviously even the best nature documentary can never replace seeing the real thing in person. Which is why zoos — which this National Geographic history suggests date back to 2500 B.C. — remain popular.

But I am not the only person to find fault with them. A recent piece in Slate catalogued critics’ complaints: They break up animal pack patterns, lack sufficient space and stimulation for many species — and as one quoted expert notes, “Most animals don’t want to be stared at.” In some cases, the result is compulsive behavior that is sometimes treated with drugs.

So for all the caveats about the mediated wild, isn’t there something to be said for seeing the real thing in its real place — even if only via screen? This brings us to the most recent variation on watching wildlife from afar: the animal cam.

Creatures in the stream
Probably you’ve encountered this phenomenon, but it basically involves the installation of a static video camera streaming images of creatures in their natural habitats or zoos — eagles, koalas, dolphins, you name it.

Writer Jon Mooallem (author of the book Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America) suggests that the Decorah eagle cam, pointed at an Iowa nest since 1997, essentially founded this “weird genre that demands a lot more of its audience.”

Often, there’s painfully little action: Animals stand around, sleep, or are simply absent.

Still, some cams draw hundreds of thousands of viewers.

WATCH: 7 Animal Cams to Drive You Wild

Why the popularity? Perhaps, Mooallem ventured, “the need these creatures are satisfying is our need to protect them.” When fans of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ EagleCam feed noticed that a baby eagle seemed to be ailing, they got upset — bombarding officials with demands to intervene. After initial resistance, they did: While the bird could not be saved, the cam audience was evidently satisfied that officials could give it “a more comfortable death.”

More recently, another eagle cam, operated by the Biodiversity Research Institute in Maine, captured the (natural) death of a different eaglet; again viewers demanded action, but this time officials refused.

As upsetting as these incidents are, they highlight what’s fascinating about this iteration of mediated nature watching. Chris, the media-culture researcher, suggests that the cams may function as virtual windows for some cubicle-farm dwellers. But she also notes the almost soap-opera quality that some viewers impose on the feeds — naming the animals, assessing their “parenting skill,” and so on.

“Is that anthropomorphism or is it empathy?” she asks. “I’m kind of in the middle on that.” Interpreting nature’s dramas in human terms, and demanding narrative satisfaction even if it requires interference, is ultimately misguided.

On the other hand, the cams can foster a true appreciation of the natural world among those of us who rarely experience it directly. That’s a positive thing.

Cams, and the proliferation of other imagery of animals and their habitats, can help us learn to value nature and wildlife as they are — and not just as we want them to be.

Write to me at rwalkeryn@yahoo.com or find me on Twitter, @notrobwalker. RSS lover? Paste this URL into your reader of choice: https://www.yahoo.com/tech/author/rob-walker/rss.