Planet for the Apes: Live Animal Web Cams Make Us Actionable

• Jul. 16, 2014 • helpers, Special FeatureComments (0)1666

‘It’s a trap. The Internet’s a trap!’ they say. It numbs the mind and lulls us into a general state of lassitude and inaction. 

And it’s true. I choose my coffee shops from the few that still don’t have Wi-Fi. It’s the only way I’m bound to get anything significant done.  According to a recent report by the Internet Advertising Bureau and PWC, the British spend an average of 43 hours a month on the Internet– or 1 in 12 waking minutes. But as our lives fall deeper and deeper down the Internet rabbit-hole, are we truly at risk for becoming fully inert? Or could the Internet actually facilitate an actionable life?

Some say there’s already one corner of the Internet that’s stirring compassion, sparking participation and catalyzing action: live animal web cams.

In recent years, live animal web cams have exploded in popularity. One organization, Explore, founded by philanthropist and filmmaker Charles Annenberg Weingarten, has installed more than 75-high-definition cameras in parks and facilities across four continents since 2011. And Explore expects to double that number in the next year alone.

Their cameras allow Internet users to watch a myriad of animals including, brown bear, the Arctic Snowy Owl, sea nettles, penguins, honey bees, bison, puppies and more, live in their natural habitats. According to Mashable, Explore.org gets about 30 million page views a month.

The Puppy Bowl, Animal Planet’s take on the Super Bowl, was the second most-watched social television program in America in 2012, with more than 10 million viewers tuning in to watch puppies frolic down a makeshift football field. An average of 12.4 million viewers watched all six Puppy Bowl airings in 2013.

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And when a Giant Panda, Mei Xiang, was due to give birth at the National Zoo in 2013, the Internet nearly exploded after the zoo installed a high-definition web cam. From late July 2013 when the camera went live, through early September 2013 when Mei Xiang gave birth, the live site experienced more than 52,000 hours of panda-cam viewing.  The zoo tried to relegate users’ viewing time, kicking viewers off after 15-minutes to allow others a chance to see the panda however, like all good Internet enthusiasts, viewers simply refreshed their page. On the day Mei Xiang gave birth, the website was inundated with over 128,000 clicks and eventually crashed. Then, less than a month after the baby panda’s birth, the Internet went into a frenzy again when the Panda-cam was shut off amidst the government shutdown.

And just this May fanatics watched in anticipation for nearly six days, waiting for Stormy, a horse in Airville, Pennsylvania to give birth. Stormy’s owner, Jodie Otte, turned on a web cam in the horse’s stable so that her and her daughter wouldn’t miss the birth. The webcam was only intended for their personal use, but Otte hosted the live-stream on Mare Stare, a site that hosts live horse cams from around the world, and soon thousands were watching along with her.  Otte told CNN iReport the first day Stormy’s webcam went live, it got more than 10,000 hits.

“It’s nuts,” she told CNN. “If my feed goes down people call me at work.”

Education, Participation and Action. 

All this is good. It proves what we already suspected; people are enthralled with nature and captivated by the slow-paced animal world– that, or we’re simply artful procrastinators.  Still, the animals seem to take priority, sometimes even over daily responsibilities. We’ll spend sleepless nights waiting for a calf to be born, only to be too beleaguered to go to work the next day.

But as it turns out, these animal web cams may serve a far greater purpose for igniting real change. Whether it’s a conscious shift, or a subliminal message that seems to tug at our heartstrings, the live web cams may lead to more puppy adoptions (all the puppies that participate in Puppy Bowl are typically adopted before the show even begins), decreased poaching and, at the very least, increased awareness for endangered and threatened species.

Take, for instance, the case of the bald eagle. In 1963, the bald eagle population hit an all-time low. A combination of insecticides, poaching and a general lack of awareness left the United States with just 487 nesting pairs. Today there are nearly 10,000 nesting pairs and the bald eagle was removed from the list of threatened species in 2007.


Pictured: Stormy right after giving birth in May. Photo: Jodie Otte Photography, Jodieotte.com

Some say the success of the bald eagle can be attributed, at least in part, to the technology that’s providing a gateway to nature.

“Certainly there’s conservation value in overall awareness and people caring about eagles and subsequently the rest of the world,” Drew Becker, an eagle biologist at the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Rock Island Field Office in Illinois told National Geographic. “Eagle cams and nest cams in general have just exploded in recent years.”

“There are people who become as fanatic about the wildlife cams as they might about soap operas or other TV events,” added Geof LeBaron of the Audubon Society.

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Live animal web cams have also played a revolutionary role in education. The Bielawski’s were one family that anxiously awaited Stormy’s delivery.  Jamie Bielawski home-schools her four daughters and started showing her girls Stormy’s web cam in order to spark a conversation.

“A lot of kids today go to Walmart and see a chicken come from a package and that it comes from Perdue, but I want my kids to understand the environment and animals and what animals go through,” Bielawski told CNN.

Animal web cams are also used as a portal to connect students to unfamiliar worlds. After Susan Kosovo, a teacher in Pennsylvania, visited Marco Island in 2012 and experienced its Dolphin Project, she decided to bring the dolphins to her classroom. She implemented weekly Skype sessions so that her landlocked students could take virtual field-trips and experience marine life. Several times a week her class would explore Marco Island from their desks in Pennsylvania.  It didn’t take long for the students to feel invested in the well-being of the dolphins.

One dolphin, Seymour, aptly named because he showed up so often, became severly injured when monofilament line got wrapped around his flipper.  The students took the time to learn about the human impact on bottlenose dolphins and the dangers of litter on a dolphin’s natural habitat. The students set up an impromptu fundraiser to help Seymour, and watched live as the Dolphin Project, and other rescuers from around Marco Island, cut the monofilament from his flipper.

The students cheered and even cried as the dolphin was released; an event that left an indelible mark on their life. Now those students will be much more inclined to think about the impact of litter on our shared earth. It’s the exact type of actionable society every teacher hopes they can spark.

For the National Audubon Society’s Stephen Kress, who works with Explore.org to broadcast puffins in Maine, the web cam’s public reach is incompatible to that of any other platform.  ”Having cameras on the islands is really the only way that most people are going to see the birds,” Kress told Mashable. And without seeing them, we can’t hope that people will protect [them].”

Pictured: Charles Annenberg Weingarten, founder of Explore.org

Photo: via Explore

For more information on Explore’s ongoing installation of animal web cameras around the world, visit mashable.com.

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