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Replacing cages with streaming feeds of animals -- an air zoo.

Zoos arose when access to animals either did not happen at all, or required grueling travel. Theoretically, zoos brought the exotic creatures of the world home in fascination (less charitably, in domination). Mostly, they were sad places for animals and people alike. Cramped, concrete jungles, too often in urban environments.

Perhaps, zoos improved on taxidermy. The denizens of “natural history” museums teaching children, teaching us, that Big Life is glass eyed and moth eaten – as far from the true ethos of wildlife as it could be. If zoos improved on the shotgun schools of zoology, however, it was marginal. Nothing is itself in a cage. As the Toronto City council to its credit recently concluded before sending Thika, Toka and Iringa to a California sanctuary, elephants do not belong in Toronto.

Today we have every possible means of observing animals in their natural element or large open sanctuaries. The NPS's live webcam of brown bears salmon fishing at Katmai is a perfect and excellent example! As science museums have evolved to present what is new in new ways, so we should encourage zoos to do the same, by moving animals to legitimate open space sanctuaries and bringing the images at home.

Imagine streaming feeds of formerly caged animals in sanctuaries. Imagine an “air zoo" that would truly allow our children, would allow us, to appreciate what it is to be a tiger, a lion or an elephant. And would do it in ways zoos do not and simply cannot achieve – close up, resting and foraging, interacting with their companions, being themselves. It also would conform to our evolving sense of proper treatment and care of animals, as the Toronto City Council has proved with its pioneering decision. Finally, it would keep zoos out of the exotic animal trade, an increasingly problematic relationship that troubles more and more of us past distraction.

Zoos can evolve better and faster, and should.


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  • Nov 6 2013: If there is no way to create a sanctuary for animals that is safe and healthy and even prosperous for them and still allow humans to see them in person and interact with them, then just get rid of zoos altogether. Until those of us who actually want to live in the here and now and experience life directly instead of watching it on a screen die off, then a "streaming zoo" might as well be no zoo. A "streaming zoo" is just a jumped up version of a magazine with pictures of animals or a movie about animals that previous generations had access to.

    We are growing ever farther from nature and from real, live, growing things on the planet, including other people. Perhaps we will get to the point where our relationships are all virtual, no one travels except in their living room, animals are something you see on your iPad, etc. I'm not ready to go there yet.
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      Nov 16 2013: Kirsten, I think the idea of a virtual zoo is not to get people even farther away from nature. I believe the best option of all would be to watch animals in their natural habitats. However, since that is not always possible, people came up with the idea of zoos. That was long before there was any technology allowing us to gather information about exotic animals otherwise.
      We have to recognize that zoos, although the let you see an animal live, it is by no means a realistic representation of the animal's habitat, which means the animal hardly will exhibit natural behaviors.
      Personally, if I can't see the animal in it's natural habitat I prefer to watch a documentary or a live stream.
      I think even the old David Attenborough nature documentaries beat a visit to the zoo.
      • Nov 16 2013: Harald, I'm right there with you, and appreciate your weighing in here. I also would say that documentaries, with their editing, are different from webcams, where over time you get to understand (without impacting) an animal's personality and behavior. There's an opportunity to learn what it means to be a specific animal and type of animal that zoos cannot offer. My proposal is a way to get to humanity and improve education, by which I mean understanding, and with anthony's help I think we get there and have something so "unzoo" that we begin to think differently about animals. And ourselves. Cheers.
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          Nov 16 2013: I think there a lots of things that can be done as an alternative to a zoo.
          I'm a scuba diver and I know that not even the best aquarium in the world replaces a real coral reef.
          Installing cams on a reef with a 25/7 live feed would be the second best thing to actually diving there.
          Experts could even comment live on the stream so people can actually learn immediately about what's going on.
          Something like that couldn't even be done in a zoo setting.
      • Nov 16 2013: Harald, I agree -- Anthony (above) has suggested a 3-d framework, and I think we could have the "entrance" to a global zoo, where 3d experts talk about animals featured on a worldwide basis through webcams. Animals in the wild and in qualifying sanctuaries all are able to participate by providing streaming feeds. In this way, someone like you or me could begin to understand behavior. In some case, video may be ok too.

        If worldwide, folks fall in love with movie stars, I think they'll experience real devotion to the animals they come to know. THAT would be something.
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          Nov 17 2013: Elise, if you want to pull that off you need to write down a business plan. Even if Anthony can do the website for free, there will still be lots of other costs accumulate such as hosting fees, costs to obtain the live feeds, marketing, expert fees, etc, etc.
          At the end, you want to compete against zoos which means your project must be highly professional from the beginning on.
          Another idea, to get started you might want to focus on animals that can't be easily seen in zoos. This way you can attract people without having to enter into a competition with zoos. Eventually you can expand the coverage
        • Nov 19 2013: cannot comment on the tech supply chain end, except to REALLY plan it out for HIGH res for HIGH traffic!!! Cannot imagine the internet bills! And the interactive tech with the educational experts component--archives, keep these moments accessible, embedding basic overview facts, etc.

          Cannot comment on the financial foundational and supportive requirements would be, except to assume they would be huge. Perhaps grants. Consider crowd funding. Very high energy creative environment. Brings lots of "everyday" folks into the fold! How about site memberships?

          I do not feel that competition with zoos needs to be part of the equation. Vastly different models. Looking at a polar bear in a fake pool, or watching it on the tundra with it's cubs, or with its sparring mates, waiting for the ice to freeze... seeing a raptor tethered to a post, or watching a wild lifelong mating pair breed, lay eggs, raise and fledge their young..not in the same league. I would encourage distancing, in fact, from any 'zoo' reference in this biz, but rather cherish, grow and extend the different model you, Elise, clearly have, including the languaging. Words are also power. Like any business, ID the mission, set out the steps to getting there and grow, content, tech and financial... and go about walking them, adjusting as necessary along the way. I definitely agree that educating people as to the horrors of animal/environmental abuse is necessary, even more essential are the life-affirming options.

          “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
          ― Buckminster Fuller
      • Nov 19 2013: The good news, Harald and Mary, is that by day I'm an attorney who's area of practice is cleantech and clean energy, with a focus on advancing early stage innovation. For better or worse, this is what I do.

        In terms of making it professional (and Mary your points are dead on!), I was going to mosey over to the super-smart folks at the MIT media lab (as I sometimes teach at MIT's Sloan School), and talk to them about this project. I suspect, with their help, we could change the world in the most professional, and engaging manner imaginable.

        And, while I don't think we have to compete with zoos, if we play our cards right, we'll be able to exchange their participation in a much better worldwide system (ours) for transfer of animals that should not be there now to sanctuaries. THAT would be the measure of success. It won't be immediate, but if we are smart and creative, it can be ... Mary, the BF quote is my lodestar.

        Thanks for sticking with me here -- your thought leadership means a ton!
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          Nov 20 2013: Hey Elise, seems you are passionate about this. That's already a great start. Yes, at MIT there are a lot of smart folks. I'm sure you can find some good ideas there.
          Btw, do you plan everything for profit or non profit ? I think that's also an important point to decide from the start on.
    • Nov 18 2013: There are plenty! They are called National Parks and Preserves! And I can tell you that live stream cameras are NOTHING like either documentaries or magazines. It is like being a fly on the wall. They are infinitely superior if you are actually interested in witnessing the real deal in real time instead of just being entertained.
      • Nov 18 2013: I love parks and preserves. That is more like it! You can feel the breeze, smell the air, taken in the world with all five senses and if you observe wildlife it is real and you are there as a (considerate) fellow animal. It is real and alive and you can feel yourself part of the ecosystem. Unlike streaming video...
        • Nov 18 2013: I think having both is what will give the most people the most views and "interactions" and learning opportunities. I would never promote one over the other, but traditional zoo design is archaic and abusive, and what I would consider to be an inappropriate means of interaction.
      • Nov 19 2013: Thanks so much, Mary, you have it just right!

        Kristen, I get it, you want to be in the same space animals occupy. We aren't stopping that, provided that your opportunity comes without a profound or even inappropriate cost to the animal, e.g., riding on elephants.

        But, what I am saying -- loudly and clearly -- is that learning about snow leopards by taking three years to walk the Himalayas, however marvelous, is not realistic or desirable for even a fraction of the 7 billion people that inhabit this earth, mostly in poverty. So, let's give everyone access to animals as best as we can, and let's engage them, all of us together, in learning to love a lion languor, and a particular lion's gait, etc., to protect the beings, the life, that if we don't protect it will disappear. I'm 48, and it will happen in my lifetime, for elephants, rhinos, leopards, jaguars, tigers and lions. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't goddamn necessary, and I wont give up until we've done it.

        I should add a call out to Daniel Pauley, here on TED, who helped me to understand that, as animals become extinct, they pass from being numerous (in some instances common, as in the case of carrier pigeons) to rare. As a consequence, the loss is almost invariably perceived as losing what is already rare and therefore acceptable. For this reason, we don't seem to mind extinction as we should, with the heavy weight of responsibility.
        • Nov 19 2013: "But, what I am saying -- loudly and clearly -- is that learning about snow leopards by taking three years to walk the Himalayas, however marvelous, is not realistic or desirable for even a fraction of the 7 billion people that inhabit this earth, mostly in poverty."

          This is it actually. Why does anyone learn to care about the synergy of life beyond their immediate physical/experiential boundaries? How does anyone learn to care? Theme parks may put you up close to some animals, but at what cost to them? At what cost to your perception of wildness and its value? I would suggest that cultures remaining intact in their relationship to the planet and its natural rhythm and complexity, are not the least unaware of the slow decline of species, ecosystems.

          While being able to afford a vacation or two or more to go to these awesome places is extraordinary, I think it safe to say it is also privileged. For everybody else, again, these live cams combined with expert interaction is in some ways, even MORE than a week's vacation limited to certain areas, certain times, could ever be. I have never been to Alaska, much less Brooks River Camp, but I have been afforded an opportunity to develop an intimate relationship with that wild place, that no 3 day excursion could replace. Definitely icing on cake, but the daily viewing over time has afforded an intimacy that is priceless, and if/when you do finally make it out there into the actual environment, you can get so much more out of it. Also the population move to urban centers worldwide.. they NEED to remain connected to the global ecosystems that support it all.

          I've been blessed by much rural living, encounters with wild places, but poor and urbanized cultures may have little or no physical access, either voluntarily or endless other reasons, no real ideas at all about wildness beyond their immediate environment.. what is it's Beauty and why does it matter to me? these connections need to be made.

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