When is something that you watch on a screen more “real” and more compelling than what you experience right in front of you? When you’re watching live footage of birds wheeling around a cliff rather than standing in front of a zoo cage glancing at listless black bears. In “Zoo Keepers’ Dilemma,” a short piece produced by WNYC’s Radio Lab, former zoo director David Hancocks says that his ideal zoo is a “cyberzoo,” where people would watch live, high-definition images from the wild rather than view animals in unnatural environments. According to Hancocks, most zoos focus more on entertaining people than on serving the needs of animals or advancing understanding of nature. The idea of the cyberzoo originated at a cocktail party thrown by wildlife filmmaker Chris Parsons, who set up 3 jumbo screens like a bay window and piped in live footage of sea birds at the Orkney Islands. Enraptured, party-goers stared silently at the “window on a natural scene” for half an hour. Since the footage was live, Parsons theorized, people were curious about what would happen next. Parsons later established Wildwalk, a wildlife exhibition in Bristol that incorporated footage from nature films as well as walk-through rainforest-like environments. Unfortunately, Wildwalk closed, but the idea is an intriguing one–create immersive, interactive environments where people can come together to see how animals behave in the wild.
By the way, check out Radio Lab, a show that explores “one big idea,” typically related to science. The show brilliantly weaves together interviews with scientists, witty conversations between hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, and exquisitely produced sound effects. My favorite episodes include Emergence, Musical Language and Detective Stories.