The Animal Cam as Reality Show

BlogHer Original Post

If you are one of the thousands who "witnessed" the birth of Lily the Bear's new cubs - via web cam - then you already know how technology brings us into the dens, nests, pens, warrens, water holes and stalls of so many animals. Playing Peeping Tom to wildlife is nothing new (i.e., zoos), but whether its puppies or bears, the animal cam provides a valuable window to the day-to-day lives of animals.

My BlogHer colleague, Paula G., was one of the Lily fans who got swept up in the births. Her enthusiasm was infectious. "I watched it live (luck!!) and I could see the viewers in the player spike from 18,000 to over 46,000 when she was in full blown labor ... a spiritual experience watching her," said Paula.

When I imagine such a far flung "community: of people all witnessing the same emotional moment, the words "magical" and "miracle" do come to mind, even if we are talking about technology. Whatever helps us know and understand animals on a personal level can only be a good thing. Thanks to a web cam, I now have an inexplicable crush on armadillos. (Explained later in this post.)

Occasionally, the web cam goes beyond the original intention. In 2005, Bev Holzrichter, a horse breeder in Charlotte, Iowa, had set up a webcam in the stall of an expectant mare, Sierra. Though technically alone (Bev's husband was away for several days) she actually had many eyeballs on the scene, which ended up saving her life. 

The birth of Sierra's foal was being recorded by the live web cam and hundreds of people around the world were anxiously awaiting the new arrival. But after the delivery, Sierra - now a nervous new mother - kicked Bev three times, catching her right elbow and right knee - pulling all the tendons.

Bev had been on the phone with Wendy Wiener, one of the many web watchers, who was calling from California to congratulate her on the birth. (The two women had never met, at that point.) They ended the call and then the accident occurred. Weiner saw what happened via the cam and called Bev back, who luckily still had the phone in her hand. 

Wendy kept Bev talking while alerting the other viewers to call for help. Urgent calls were made to local emergency officials - including one from Berlin - and help soon arrived. Huzzah!

Speaking of web cam heroics, I am pleased that my utility company, Xcel Energy, is the world's first company of its kind to install nesting boxes for wild birds at their facilities; the bird cams were the natural next step. When the American Bald Eagles begin nesting at their Fort Vrain Station (Platteville, CO), it signals the official kickoff to Xcel's "Bird Cam Season." In addition to the eagles, their cameras feature Great Horned owls, osprey, falcons and kestrels.

"The open space, vegetation, and water surrounding our power plant sites makes them excellent homes for wildlife. We have installed web-based Bird Cams at several of our facilities to help raise awareness of these wild creatures and share them with the public. The Bird Cam news will get you caught up on the latest information from the nests."

--Xcel Bird Cam Page


One of the most popular animal cams around, Africam, offers live feeds from the African Bush, Bahamas and polar bear environments. The site's "Recent Video Highlights" include baboons eating seeds, wandering warthog families and hyenas harassing hippos. As someone who spent three months in Africa, seeking wildlife to observe, these webcams offer an admirable slice of that experience - minus the airfare, numerous inoculations and giant bugs.

But it's not just the big game that get the spotlight, doggie daycares have begun to utilize the web cam for customers who want to check in on their pets. I'd love to hear from any of you that have utilized this. I imagine that it offers peace of mind as well as some darn cute entertainment.

Another BlogHer pal, Maria Niles, directed me to the Shiba Inu Puppy Cam. I've discovered that I like to just leave it on while I'm working. Even if I'm not looking at it, hearing the occasional whimper or pup squeak does me good. (Since I'm in between pets right now, I'll take my puppy energy where I can get it.)

Same goes for Craig Newmark's (of Craigslist) hummingbird cam, which I have on right now. I like hearing the chirps and wing flaps while I go about my day. Makes me feel like I'm outside, even if I'm not.

When searching out animal web cams, be aware of lingo around different camera set-ups, mainly:

Live streaming: This is live real time video which sometimes includes live audio as well.
Live refresh: Live real-time still images are refreshed at certain time intervals, such as every 30 seconds.
Camera traps: Cameras that are set up in the field and are triggered by movement, usually by an animal. They are not live and normally used to research shy, dangerous or nocturnal animals.

"Each camera is customized to its particular location. Often, as is the case with most wildlife cams, the cams are remote far from mains electricity, telecommunications infrastructure and other resources. As a result, alternative power sources are deployed such as windmills and solar panels. Leading edge telecommunications are utilised and include satellite, fibre optic and innovative wireless technology....This often results in some operational and technical challenges in setting up and maintaining the camera infrastructure. It is not unusual to have interference with cams, from humans, weather, terrain and animals alike - not to mention some vigorous Africam storms!"



Then there's the concept of strapping a camera to the actual animal to gain a true perspective of what life is like for an alligator or scorpion. I highly recommend checking out the Museum of Animal Perspectives, which offers a wide range of videos, imageries, maps and "dwelling cams." My favorite, by a long shot, is the Armadillo Cam, by Sam Easterson, sitting on the home page. So fun!

(I also recommend Sam Easterson's channel on Art Babble. The video artist has an exhibit trailer called "Nature Holds My Camera", which involves outfitting cameras on animals.)

Other great animal cams:

Manatee Cam - It's so cold, their freezing their little 'tees off, so they huddled around a power plant. Recently, giant eagle rays and spinner sharks joined them in the 70-degree waters.

Monterey Bay Aquarium has a great Kelp Forest Web Cam that offers viewings of local creatures like sea otters.

The Elephant Cam at the San Diego Zoo is popular with pachyderm fans like myself.

The most comprehensive 'cam' list I found was at the Smithsonian National Zoo. So many to choose from! Everything from Clouded Leopards Cam to Asian Small-Clawed Otter Cam. If you are a raging animal voyeur, this may be your last stop.

And just because you bothered to read all the way to the end of this post, you've won this bizarre chunk of video entertainment. Turns out, "birds and the bees" are only the tip of the iceberg ...


Libby at Rejoice Always is another big fan of the animal cams at the National Zoo:

"I've also had good luck with the golden lion tamarin cam. Many of the cams are showing outdoor enclosures that are deserted because, well, it's cold. Of course you never know what you might catch a glimpse of if you check them compulsively, so you probably should. I look forward to checking back in with the animal cams in the spring/summer when they are a bit more in season."

Meanwhile, a beloved teacher in Saskatchewan, Canada blogs about her students activities over at Mrs. Elder's Room. Lately, they've been following wildlife (including Lily!) via web cam:

"We have also been watching a live stream of a hummingbird nest. This female had two eggs hatch about three days ago, and the students are excited to watch her fly in and out of the nest!"

Keri Cronin posted a wonderful essay on her blog, Diary of a Dandelion Diva, about her fascination with animal cams. Pondering her own habit of animal voyeurism brought up some questions:

"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."

BlogHer Contributing Editor, Animal Concerns, Proprietor, ClizBiz


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