Animals Strike Curious Poses

Nature livestreams let us pretend we’re in charge of the natural world

Vying for eyeballs in lockdown, zoos around the world have been quick to market themselves as a solution to quarantine malaise, recasting animals as screensavers. On April 16th, the Bronx Zoo and the New York Aquarium both launched their own livestreams, while the San Antonio Zoo is now livestreaming yoga sessions with certified instructors. The program, called Zen Zoo, “lets you work on your flow while also enjoying a view of lions, bears, birds, and other creatures.” The Monterey Bay Aquarium in California offers MeditOceans, free, 10-minute mindfulness sessions inviting you to “ask yourself, what are the places in which you shut down emotionally?” while staring at “sea nettle serenity” or “moon jelly flow.” The global pandemic — with its death toll and mounting unemployment — can seem like a distant dream as we soften our gaze and let it follow the movement of transparent, floating mushroom caps, training ourselves to consume nature from a distance.

Two categories of livestreaming have emerged as marquee entertainment during the pandemic: 24/7 cameras placed inside cages, and daily programmed events such as feedings. The first category resembles a nature film in which humans are nowhere to be seen, therefore recreating the illusion of a natural habitat within a restricted environment (much like millions have been asked to do while “sheltering-in-place”). The latter category, on the other hand, emphasizes the interdependence of humans and animals. In an age of social distancing, watching a trainer being licked by an affectionate seal does more than reassure us that the animals are being cared for; while a mysterious pathogen threatens to kill us, it provides an antithesis to the idea that nature might do us harm.

As ever, zoos serve to distract us or reassure us that nature and its habitants are intact

These live webcams, operated by zoos and aquariums forced to close their gates, create the illusion of control over nature at a time when we feel entirely at its mercy. The outbreak of Covid-19 is partially explained by the increasing proximity between humans and wild animals caused by population growth and habitat loss. At the same time, human intervention has failed to stop the virus. Governments on every continent have fumbled public health efforts, and six months into the pandemic there is still much we don’t know about its spread or treatment.

Historically, zoos have always functioned as both a smokescreen and a mirror. First gaining popularity in Europe during the 1800s, they provided humans with a flattering reflection. As historian Hywel Williams poetically described, “Only a little below the angels stood humanity, divinely guaranteed its dominion over both Earth and its non-human inhabitants. It was a picture which was confirmed by the age of the discoveries — and those successes by gunpowder and colonial plot created a new cage for the old relationship between human and animal.” Bringing together the 19th-century obsession with taxonomy and its imperial ambitions, zoos domesticated animals as part of the European colonial project. They were a smokescreen, hiding the cruelty of colonialism and the disastrous environmental effects of industrialization and resource extraction by providing the growing middle-class with new leisure activities, presenting the yields of human plunder as something tame and delightful.

“The modern zoo,” writes Williams, “is post-colonial in its guilty strategies — in its free-range desire to keep the old show on the road but in the park.” To ease our conscience, zoos are now marketed as part of the conservation movement. Controlled, designed, and consumed by humans, these spaces are tasked with providing endangered species a safe sanctuary. Over a century after the invention of the zoo, the smokescreen now serves to hide the scale of extinction brought by human activity and resulting climate change. As ever, zoos serve to distract us or reassure us that nature and its habitants are intact, as long as they remain under our complete and full control.

During the pandemic, zoo livestreams extend this quest for control by supporting the idea that the show must go on. While tens of millions of Americans lost their jobs and small businesses are facing insolvency, white-collar workers are being asked to continue working from home. Sitting your child in front of playing pandas while you race to make a deadline trumps the endless lullabies of YouTube Kids. By asking children to look at sea monkeys or learn to identify birds, parents can ignore for a moment that we are bequeathing to the next generation a planet whose long-term stability is in question.

Marketed as both an educational and spiritual resource, livestreams claim to provide us with a front-row seat to what nature looks like when no one is looking. This desire is reflected in another phenomenon that has come to define the relationship between humans and animals under corona-capitalism: ersatz photos supposedly documenting wild animals returning to empty urban centers. Amidst the infographics counting the global death toll, a more hopeful story is taking hold in social media and the popular press. According to this fairytale, the sharp decline in travel and commerce has led to bluer skies, the rejuvenation of natural habitats, and a pause in the race toward ecological disaster. As cultural critic Amanda Hess recently wrote in the New York Times, “bobcats and black bears have commandeered the roadways [of Yosemite National Park]. Wild boars have descended on Barcelona. The Welsh town of Llandudno belongs to the goats… Humanity has been shuttered indoors, but our feeds are overgrowing with tales of a revived natural world.”

Zoo webcams mirror our anthropocentrism and help us regain a lost sense of at-homeness in the world

The new iconographies of nature enable onlookers to both acknowledge the interdependency between humans and other species (viruses included), while denying the very real danger of climate change and other human-made environmental catastrophe. Undoubtedly, Covid-19 is having some positive impact on the environment: New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. saw a 30 percent reduction in smog in March. Whereas just weeks ago cities in Italy were restricting driving because of extreme air pollution, now the country is experiencing a similar decrease in nitrogen dioxide, a major contributor to respiratory illness. As our air is growing cleaner, the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts that nationwide energy-related carbon dioxide emissions will shrink by 7.5 percent in 2020 and that global petroleum and liquid fuel consumption may drop by 5.2 million barrels a day.

However, these beneficial effects are momentary and likely will disappear as soon as governments lift restrictions. Indeed, smog in China is already increasing again following a drop in February. Moreover, the celebratory headlines are masking the ways in which corporations and countries are exploiting a global pandemic to shore up the fossil fuel industry, thereby  increasing greenhouse gas emissions for years to come. Donald Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency is relaxing enforcement of clean water, clean air, and hazardous waste regulations at the same time as it rolls back fuel efficiency standards for automobiles. Meanwhile, after years of international opposition and direct-action protest, the Canadian company TC Energy announced on March 31st, that it will begin construction of the Keystone XL natural gas pipeline, thanks to a $1.1 billion investment from the provincial government of Alberta made under the guise of economic stimulus. Even the idea that carbon emissions are down is questionable, as the data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s observatory in Manua Loa, Hawaii, indicates that atmospheric CO2 has increased since the beginning of the year.

At the same time, the joyful photos of “smog-free” China fail to account for the growing toll of moving our lives online. As Laura Marks reminds us, “This pandemic panacea is fueling a more pressing global catastrophe, for streaming media has a significant carbon footprint.” She estimates that during just 10 days in March, the streaming of Netflix’s Tiger King — yet-another demonstration of the brutality of zoos — produced the greenhouse-gas equivalent to 75,000 cars on the road for one year. While we were watching Joe Exotic alongside 34 million Netflix subscribers — or celebrating Ying Ying and Le Le, the pandas at Hong Kong’s Ocean Park who mated last month following a decade of celibate cohabitation, not knowing their act of desire was about to go viral — Covid-19 delayed the next round of negotiations for the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. Whereas Marks promotes “digital sobriety” and touts a return to physical media such as DVDs, zoos and aquariums are encouraging us to tap into a 24/7 economy of livestreaming while ignoring its harmful effect on the environment.

The proliferation of both the livestreams and the “nature is healing” memes invite us to have our cake and eat it too: we can pretend that the threats humanity poses to nature have been averted, while exercising full control of nature through our omnipresent surveillance cameras. Stuck in their human-made aquarium, the only movement afforded to jellyfishes in Monterey Bay is between one corner of our screen and another. Much like Nintendo’s Animal Crossing, which became a form of “coronavirus therapy,” zoo webcams turn caged animals into video games. Protected as we are from the stinging tentacles and piercing jaws, these images mirror our anthropocentrism and help us regain a lost sense of at-homeness in the world.

If we recast animals as pixels, babysitters, yoga props, or comic relief, we can ignore the ways in which we have been neglecting the urgent task of studying how human behavior changes both the environment and other species. Even as we come to recognize the deadliness of the Anthropocene, many of us still see animals as a means to an end. To that extent, we are all like Tiger King’s Carole Baskin — pretending to care for wild animals while ignoring how our habitual behaviors directly contribute to their ever-shrinking natural habitat.

Neta Alexander is an assistant professor of film and media at Colgate University, New York. Her work focuses on Science and Technology Studies and digital media. She serves as an assistant editor of JCMS: Journal of Cinema and Media Studies, and her recent book, Failure (Polity, 2019), coauthored with Arjun Appadurai, studies how Silicon Valley and Wall Street monetize failure and forgetfulness.

Bradley H. Kerr is a writer and editor based in upstate New York. He holds an M.A in Philosophy from Columbia University and a B.A. in Mind, Nature and Value from the New School. He recently apprenticed at the Carpenter’s Boat Shop, a school for traditional wooden boatbuilding in Pemaquid, Maine.