I watched a lioness and her 4 cubs while I ate my breakfast this morning. No, I didn’t relocate to a new country, nor am I on an African safari vacation. I was watching a live feed of a webcam pointing at some lions who live in a zoo in Norway. While I am admittedly addicted to watching the camera (the sight of the sleeping lioness and her cute little cubs is strangely soothing), there are some interesting issues at play here that leave me feeling somewhat unsettled.
I’ve been fascinated by “animal cams” for ages. I remember visiting a website a number of years ago that had a camera pointed at a watering hole somewhere in Africa. I don’t remember ever seeing any animals stroll across the camera’s path, but the anticipation that it might happen was quite exciting indeed. Then along came the “Panda Cam” at the San Diego Zoo. I spent hours on this site, watching little Hua Mei grow up. I would have the page minimized while I was working on my grad school assignments and would check in from time to time as a reward for getting work done. (The obnoxious movie preview for “Kung Fu Panda” is a recent addition to the site. I’m sure if I had to listen to that while I was writing my dissertation I would have lost interest in the site very quickly!!)
A few years later I became addicted to the “Eagle Eye Cam” set up on Hornby Island. This was a camera trained on a pair of nesting bald eagles. I was one of many of people watching this camera on a regular basis — there were somewhere in the ballpark of 17 million hits to this website — and I remember this profound sense of mourning when it became apparent that the egg we had been watching for days was not going to hatch. This puzzled me. I lived nowhere near Hornby Island, and these were birds I would have no direct awareness of if it were not for the web cam. There are eggs that don’t hatch and other forms of “animal death” happening on a daily basis, but the difference is that that we often don’t witness these events. (Although, perhaps this will change with the proliferation of Animal Webcams in recent years)
What I began wondering about, then, was the potential for awareness and education through the webcam format. Are these just voyeuristic spectacles for entertainment, or is there another dimension? Was my sadness over the unhatched egg directly related to that specific pair of birds and that specific egg, or did it have more to do with broader issues of life, death and survival on planet earth in our current age? Was I, perhaps, sad because I personally had unfulfilled expectations, that I’d spent so many hours on this site anticipating witnessing the hatching of an egg when I could have been doing other activities such as cleaning my house, preparing for class, writing conference papers or spending time with family and friends. Maybe my time would have been better spent by seeking out a 3-dimensional animal experience closer to home? What did I gain from the “Eagle Eye Cam” viewing experience?
What is it about the process of witnessing that makes members of other species seem somehow more “knowable” to us? What can we learn about these animals by looking at them on our laptop screens? And what are we to make of the inter-species power dynamics that are most certainly at play here? While the animals being viewed sometimes appear to look directly at the camera or otherwise register momentarily awareness of the recording device, most of the animal cams are set up to be as unobtrusive and hidden as possible. If the cameras were pointed towards human subjects who were unaware that their every move were being broadcast on the internet this would be unacceptable, so how have we convinced ourselves that this is ethically acceptable? There is, however, an undeniable attraction to having the opportunity to look so closely at animals we typically do not encounter on a day-to-day basis, one that I think goes beyond just mere curiosity.
As I wrap up this post I’ve got my domesticated house cat sprawled on my desk (she continually thwarts my efforts to write!) and am taking a peek at the lioness bathing her wee cubs. I am amused by the similarity in behaviours and mannerisms between the two type of cats. As I watch the baby lions wobble around, I’m wondering about how quickly they will grow and what growing up in captivity will mean for them. Has the webcam made me think about lions in a way that I wouldn’t have if I wasn’t looking at this website? Absolutely! I rarely think about lions on a daily basis. (It isn’t that I’m not interested in them, it is just that I don’t really encounter them much in the Niagara region!) But is this necessary and, if so, what are the benefits of this kind of visual encounter?
I’m afraid that at this point I’ve got more questions than answers, but it is something I’ll continue to mull over.