The Appeal of a Virtual Zoo

Ocassionally, I come in contact with utterly brilliant people who challenge me with their questions about the ethics involved in keeping wildlife at zoos and aquariums. When these questions are well chosen and focused, they make for delightful and interesting conversation. When they are barbed with accusations that imply my chosen profession is somehow contributing to the abuse of animals, they become upsetting ventures into a losing situation that cannot be remedied. Sometimes we simply feel the way we do and cannot be persuaded to see otherwise.

A conversation I had a few days ago was, thankfully, of the first variety. Many visitors often ask where animals go when they are not on exhibit and are surprised to hear that practically all zoo and aquaria exhibits feature back areas that are not visible to the main display. It seems simple enough to me – our collections need privacy too.

However, on this day someone had a great question: why don’t you have videocameras setup in the back areas so that we can always see the animals? Isnt there an online stream of video so that we can view them at any time? “I prefer video streams to coming in to see them because the videos capture them doing something.”

This struck a massive chord in me. One of the forerunning arguments for the necessity of zoos is the fallback idea that they are one of the few places that people can view and appreciate wildlife and – hopefully – learn something about them that will translate into action, compassion, and stewardship once they leave the campus. But the fact is that zoos and aquariums cannot guarantee anything for their guests to witness. We don’t have a long running video diary of each animals’ daily adventures and don’t present the highlights – perhaps the intersting parts – at the ready for anyone to see. No one is going to jump into the exhibit to poke the sleeping tigers or bears and get them to move about and play with their toys on demand.

This, perhaps, is one of the reasons that informal educational shows and spotlights are so popular at many zoos. You get to see the animals doing something. And I can blame a single source for this apparent impatience at seeing the animals be remarkable instead of just being themselves: documentaries on teevee. After filming for thousands of hours editors and crew sit down to slice and dice until just a few hours of jaw-dropping and compelling footage is left to entice, inspire, and entertain. And since most are shot out in the wilderness, mystifying and daring behaviors and life history moments can be shown on film that simply cannot, by definition, be seen in zoos or aquariums.

Which leads us to a very perplexing question to ask: are zoos and aquariums as effective as film footage at inspiring people to take action? Are we shooting ourselves in the foot by offering video feeds of our animal collections and exhibits (like Mystic’s Penguin Hatchlings Behind the Scenes or Monterey Bay’s myriad camera views of the Outer Bay and others)? Is our progressively wired and virutal reality culture still swayed by organic experiences they create in person or are they better at receiving messages through an electronic light screen? Is there still a need to touch and interact with wildlife and wild places or are we moving, steadily, towards the idea of a virtual zoo?

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3 Comments to “The Appeal of a Virtual Zoo”

  1. That’s a good idea: it would be a good way to build a following, even when they aren’t there, they could be tuning in.

  2. Ooh, this is a tough question. In a conflict resolution course in college I wrote a paper on the ethics of keeping animals in zoos. At the end my conclusion was something more or less like this: If zoos and aquariums are able to inspire visitors in a way that they would not otherwise be inclined, then zoos and aquariums are serving an important function. However, training animals to perform in a way that is not natural for them is not inspiring visitors in the right way. The danger of performer animals, like orcas, is that visitors see a completely unnatural side of the animal. Sure, orcas breach in the wild, and there are traditional stories of the Maori riding whales, but animal performance should not be the cornerstone of an educational organization.

    That said, I visit zoos or aquariums that are focused on conservation and rehabilitation a couple times a year. (Performer animals make me sad and angry.) Even though I love documentaries, like the Blue Planet series, there’s a reality that comes with viewing animals in person rather than on TV. Understanding the size of an elephant, or the camouflage techniques of a flatfish, is much more real if I see it in person.

    Although the idea of a virtual aquarium is neat, I think it is still important to get away from the TV and see wildlife for ourselves.

  3. I agree that it seems like a good way to continue to reach people after they’ve visited or for those that might never visit (I couldnt tell you when I’ll be near Mystic again for example). But, my concern is that a virtual zoo experience and film footage is better at inspiring stewardship than the real thing. So many kids grow up playing thousands of hours of increasingly realistic video games, it makes me wonder if this constant exposure has rewired their brains and made them more receptive to a virtual zoo experience rather than the real thing. When I have guests asking me if there are video feeds of back areas – and they would prefer them to the actual exhibit they’re standing in front of – it really makes me wonder!

    Liza: I especially wanted to thank you for your thoughts. There has to be a balance point between presenting the reality and finding a way to get people interested through such “entertainment”.