Virtual zoo, real peanuts

January 16, 2008

The latest episode of that most excellent WNYC radio show, RadioLab, features former zoo director David Hancock’s dream about a new kind of zoo. A zoo without any live animals. A zoo made out of TVs.

His idea is inspired by the work of Christopher Parsons (formerly part of the BBC Natural History Unit), who once broadcasted live video imagery of animals in the wild to viewers watching screens in urban settings. A replication of the “zoo effect” without needing to keep animals in cages.

The question is this: Does it work? It reminds me of something I read a few years ago in Thomas de Zengotita’s book, Mediated, where media-saturated, TV-savvy children visit national parks to see animals like bison and elk in the wild, only to become completely bored with the whole experience in the first five minutes when they discover that the animals don’t “do anything.” After all, compared to animals on TV, animals in the wild are boring. At least for the mediated generation. And animals are typically equally as “boring” in the controlled setting of a zoo, unless the zookeepers stimulate or provoke them into action, or otherwise train them to perform ridiculously artificial feats for the amusement of human audiences. But on the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet, boring animals simply don’t exist. Instead, they’re constantly doing something new, strange and interesting. Mating rituals. Marvelously orchestrated hunts. The editors make that this is what you see, and that this is only what you see.

Can watching an animal in its natural environment on live television be equally as visceral as watching it in person in a world that happens to be simulated? Which is more vital: experiencing something live — something that is occurring “at this very moment” — or experiencing something natural? In either case, the experience is moderated by the barrier of a window. One is a piece of two-inch plexiglass. The other is an HD television and a satellite uplink.