Who Needs Zoos? In Praise of Nature Cams
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.
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.