Waiting for Wolves

Watching animals is a way to feel human

For the past decade or so, I’ve had a large photograph of two wolves framed on my wall: Watchers of the Woods, taken by wildlife photographer Jim Brandenburg. The wolves stand shoulder to shoulder, the low sun tints their fur a faint bronze. One stands tall, head high, asserting its canid gaze. The other drops its head below its shoulders, assessing its audience. Their scrutiny is cool and detached; their eyes catch the light like new pennies in the sun.

It is easy to believe that wolves look at us how we look at them. In Of Wolves and Men, Barry Lopez writes that “the Bella Coola Indians believed that someone once tried to change all the animals into men but succeeded in making human only the eyes of the wolf.”

When in the woods, it’s not unusual to imagine that a pair of disembodied eyes are staring out at you from the brush. But we rarely think of the inverse, of human eyes or their stand-ins, disembodied, staring into the forest. Wildlife webcams — live-stream feeds, internet portals into the lives and habitats of species across the world — make it possible to be these eyes from a faraway laptop or phone at any hour, for any length of time. Join an osprey in its nest in Maine; encounter a gyrfalcon while looking for polar bears; watch brown bears fish for salmon in real time, in high definition.

Why spy on animals? We tend to believe we have extricated ourselves from their world, but we live closer to animals than we think. They’ve burrowed into the cross-hatch of city streets, they’ve laid claim to parks — they thrive. As Dan Flores notes in Coyote America, “in rural Illinois, where residents shoot, trap, and harass coyotes, only 13 percent of coyote pups survive to maturity. In the Chicago metropolitan area, a whopping 61 percent of coyote pups survive to adulthood.” Cities from Los Angeles to New York have coyotes; residents of British Columbia attempt to take selfies with wolves in local parks; leopards in India wander into villages, often to disastrous effect.

Our relation to animals is mediated by zoo cages, the fences of sanctuaries, or screens

Despite this proximity, animals remain largely alien. In “Why Look at Animals?” John Berger claims we no longer understand animals as our ancestors did. From the 19th century to today, he writes, “every tradition which has previously mediated between man and nature was broken.” Animals were once essential to all our needs: “men depended on animals for food, work, transport, clothing.” They’ve since been supplanted, mostly by machines. Our relation to animals (other than domestic pets) is mediated by zoo cages, the fences of sanctuaries, or screens.

We now have video access to an enclosed population of “ambassador wolves” in Ely, Minnesota, or we can watch pandas in the Shenshuping Gengda Panda Center in China. The panda bear can be seen sitting on a bed of logs as if it’s a La-Z-Boy. Berger argues that modern zoos are “an epitaph to a relationship which was as old as man,” a relationship rendered impossible by humans’ departure from the wilderness and rurality. He compares an animal’s cage to the frame of a photograph. When we peer through a webcam into such cages, real or metaphorical, whether at zoos or animal sanctuaries, we witness a frame of a frame. It is a sanitization of an already sanitized experience.

But when these cameras aren’t within enclosures, the ability to see animals without human mediation takes us away from the zoo, toward a more unobtrusive relationship — one in which the human capacity for psychological projection is interrupted. Berger writes that “by no other species except man will the animal’s look be recognized as familiar. Other animals are held by the look. Man becomes aware of himself returning the look.” But webcams do not allow us to return the look. If, as Berger asserts, “the animal has secrets which, unlike the secrets of caves, mountains, seas, are specifically addressed to man,” this way of looking, beyond the horizons of projected reciprocity, might uncover new secrets.

The reality of wildlife webcams is, quite often, nothing happens. The International Wolf Center’s “Wolf Cams” page cautions the viewer: “Even in captivity, wolves can be elusive. If you don’t spot them, look closely in the background under the trees. If you still don’t see any check back periodically.” It concludes with an unconvincing promise: “Your patience will be rewarded.”

For those who lack patience, YouTube streams permit you to rewind to moments of interest recommended in the comments to see what you missed, to toggle between the live feed and the highlights. This allows for an implicit socialization in what otherwise might feel like solitary viewing, with a team of viewers cooperating to catalog the key moments. For example, a live stream of a peregrine falcon nest in Manchester, New Hampshire: “Dad arrives on ledge at 10:56:48 then hops onto the perch at 10:57:01”; “Mom arrives on ledge at 10:57:30; she and Dad have quite the conversation; Mom joins Dad on the perch at 10:59:02”; “Dad hops off the perch at 10:59:08; Mom flies off the perch at 11:01:07.” You can hear their vocalizations, back and forth — even if you missed it by 52 minutes (as I did).

As viewers seek to simulate human-to-animal relationships, they forge human-to-human relationships

Viewing is solitary, but not lonely. On explore.org, there’s a prominent “NOW WATCHING” feature right below the video frame, revealing how many other people are tuned in to a stream with you. These numbers influence the experience. A hundred or more begins to feel impersonal, a crowded lecture hall, but go down into the single digits and the experience of shared focus is palpable. Should something enter the frame, they will see it too — their presence verifies your sighting. As viewers seek to simulate human-to-animal relationships, they forge human-to-human relationships. I recently found myself the sole viewer of a camera trained on the empty nest of a great blue heron on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. I felt a quiet anxiety, a sense of pre-emptive loss: If the bird comes back, I thought, who will share the sighting?

We look at animals to feel the presence of other people.

On Instagram, outlets like explore.org post brief clips of highlights — moments of apparent serendipity, as when a gyrfalcon looks directly into the camera and cocks its head. We get the payoff without the hours of stillness. This presents us with a choice: a live experience or a curated one. The significance of each depends on the other. To opt for the live stream, the viewer have a sense of the highlights; to appreciate the excitement of the highlights, the viewer must be acquainted with the drudgery of the live stream. The curated clips add a lottery-playing allure to the monotony of waiting: You might see the gyrfalcon gaze at you in real time.

But there is no guaranteed payoff in watching a live stream, as there would be in watching prepackaged experience like BBC’s Planet Earth, where an hour of high-octane wildlife excitement is the norm. With a live stream, you get to feel as though you see the animal for yourself — it is not shown to you — yet the experience is also contingent, beyond your control. Waiting for the wolves on the “Wolf Cams,” the fragile serenity of the still backdrop moves to the fore, heightened by the latent expectation that it might soon be broken. A small cluster of rocks crowds the frame; a ribcage sits atop the grass, stripped clean.

Wildlife webcams add to slow TV the small promise of untamed liveliness.

The potential rewards of resigning oneself to happenstance compound when looking at an actual wild place rather than a fenced-in preservation. On a recent evening, six other viewers and I watched a feed of what looked like flecks of static on an old, broken TV while our speakers emanated the sigh of nightfall in Laikipia County, Kenya — a pastiche of chirps, coos, and whoops, with the odd ambiguous groan.

At this level, wildlife webcams blur into the realm of white-noise apps and “slow TV,” a Norwegian phenomenon in which viewers are presented long, unedited footage of ordinary events: “Train Ride Bergen to Oslo” (7 hours 14 minutes); “Telemark Canal” (11.5 hours); “Salmon Fishing” (7 hours 23 minutes). But wildlife webcams add to slow TV the small promise of untamed liveliness. Life could trot into the frame — it might even stay a while.

When humans go in search of wildlife, our experience is often dictated by the tyranny of cameras. From a DSLR with a hulking telephoto lens to an iPhone, the priority can be: Can I get good footage of this animal? A trophy? Motion-activated trail cameras are known as “camera traps,” springing on animals to capture their image. A camera trap recently captured footage of a rare snow leopard in Siberia leaving its cave for a morning stretch, as well as rare footage of red wolves.

As Walter Benjamin put it in 1936, in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” “The need to bring things spatially and humanly ‘nearer’ is almost an obsession today, as is the tendency to negate the unique or ephemeral quality of a given event by reproducing it photographically.” This compulsion is amplified when it comes to animals, which are perceived as rare to see up close. We interpose a lens between us and the animal to certify this rarity, to enshrine the feeling of ephemerality and render it into a keepsake. Then we can use it to bring humans closer to us, to examine our photographs.

When I was growing up north of Boston, there were reports of a peregrine falcon nesting in the tower of the Customs House. My parents drove me into the city, and we stood on the sidewalk as the hands of the clock did their rounds, our necks craning and sore. There were a handful of other birders, binoculars around their necks like ID badges. I can’t recall how long we waited, but the falcon emerged — a distant, disappointing speck.

J.A. Baker, in The Peregrine, compares photos of the bird to the bird itself. In bird books, “the hawk stares back at you, bold, statuesque, brightly colored. But when you have shut the book, you will never see that bird again. Compared with the close and static image, the reality will seem dull and disappointing.” This notion is reinforced by Berger, who writes of zoos, “the animals seldom live up to adults’ memories, whilst to the children they appear, for the most part, unexpectedly lethargic and dull.”

Animals often do not meet our expectations. The media through which we vividly experience them sets us up for disappointment — and the photographs Baker wrote about in 1967 pale in comparison to what is available to us now. Our idea of an eagle is defined by breathtakingly crisp slow-motion footage of an elegant bird descending upon a salmon with a splash, then flying away, fish in talons. In reality, an eagle does not fly in slow motion. Typically, an eagle sighting consists of a conspicuously large bird, a ways away, with a white head.

But wildlife webcams — raw, unedited, live streaming — provide an voyeuristic intimacy that feels like truth. What do eagles do? Sometimes they tend to their young; sometimes they futz with their nests. But even if they mostly just sit there and look around, this sight displaces one mediated fantasy — that animals are always spectacular — with another: that we can grasp an animal’s experience of the everyday, that their unreflective naturalness can become our own.

On the Naknek River live stream, users post screenshots in the comments, often just of the river, or ducks. A recent sunrise was accompanied by the comment, “Oh my goodness, I love this quiet magnificence.” The same commenter, days before, wrote, “This view warms me.” Perusing the comments section and the screenshots posted, most of the user names repeat. The proportion of silent viewers to active posters is unclear, but it is safe to say those who announce themselves are in the minority. Most of us sit there silently, anonymous, dwelling in the stream together.

James Freitas is a writer from Massachusetts.