Ape Cam: Zoo Pets and Surveillance Culture

Curator's Note

This past week a Texas couple reported that the baby monitor in their toddler’s bedroom was “hacked” by a virtual intruder. The culprit employed the family wi-fi and the device’s camera to watch the girl as she slept. He also called her offensive names through the speaker, alerting the girl’s “terrified” and “horrified” parents, who hastily disconnected the monitor. The press characterized the incident as “spying” and a “shocking violation of privacy,” tapping into public concerns over electronic surveillance more broadly.

Have the cultures of animal captivity also become embroiled in the perceived destruction of privacy this century? The online universe abounds with what-your-dog-does-when-you’re-not-home videos, wild animal-triggered camera footage, and similar documents reflecting a “secret lives of animals” aesthetic. Pets are particular targets as more and more people wish, like the Texas couple with their sleeping toddler, to be able to watch over the fur kids digitally. Animals cannot sign a waiver agreeing to such recordings and broadcasts. Is this a form of inter-species voyeurism? Is it spying?

And, what happens when zoos adopt the “secret lives of animals” aesthetic in marketing themselves to consumers, many of them parents and pet owners? The San Diego Zoo offers the public Ape Cam, a live feed of the enclosure holding the institution’s orangutans and siamangs. Ape Cam frames the apes comprehensibly as nature pets, exotic but friendly companions vaguely advocating conservation. Viewers can “Meet the Apes” as individuals through their personal profiles on the site and watch live as they climb ropes, take naps, communicate with one another, and do other ape things. All the while, the camera zooms and pans to ensure that there is always an ape or two in the shot. Ape Cam does not allow viewers to speak to the apes; to do that one has to go in person to the zoo and yell at them through the glass walls of their enclosure.

Perhaps, the Ape Cam apes are internet celebrities. Perhaps we believe they have no right to privacy because, like Henri le Chat Noir and all the others, they do not understand the technologies and cultures that make them famous.


Great post. You are spot on in making the distinction between humans' and animals' perceived right to privacy. We are quick to protect people who are vulnerable or voiceless, but we rely on animals' seeming lack of understanding (and inability to give consent) so we can justify our behavior. We even make up stories about how the animals are pleased to exist for our entertainment (again, I'm thinking of Blackfish). I had to laugh at your deadpan instructions to "yell at them through the glass walls of their enclosure." Playing devil's advocate for a moment: is a webcam really so invasive and inhumane, when the animals are already in the egregious circumstances of being held captive against their will? And if zoos shut down the webcams but the animals remain in captivity, visible only to the few who pass through the zoo's gates, doesn't that make their imprisonment even more wasteful and meaningless?

I didn't intend this week to be sad, but when you start peeling away at these "entertainments" it is often a sobering experience... Lauren, I'm intrigued by your devil's advocate questions. To go a bit further, What if zoos closed to visitors completely and the only way to view the animals was through webcams? The privacy/surveillance issue remains, of course, but I have to believe that the animals would lead happier lives without snotty humans pointing and shouting at them. Constantly being on display must be incredibly stressful; could webcams--either at zoos or in the animals' natural habitats--satisfy human curiosity AND help animals have better lives?

Indeed, a zoo without webcams and visitors would be more like a reseach facility employing animals, or a CAFO housing animals -- and we all know how difficult it is for the public to see what's happening inside those places. So, yes, captive animals are not asked for their consent. And, yes, the ApeCam and all the other zoo cams are perhaps a double edged sword for the zoos. They want to convey a sense of openness, but they do have their secrets (like how many of their residents/inmates die each year and are replaced with no one noticing -- hopefully!) So, digital zoo attractions like ApeCam raise the stakes somewhat. I think my larger point/sub-text was that these animals do have a right to privacy, but that means they would need to live at large in a landscape of their own choosing, and that as humans we would have to agree that nonhumans have a right to environmental justice too. The rain forests cut down for palm plantations on Borneo -- probably the real home of the SanDiego Zoo apes -- was their private space. But those forest were cut down and their residents killed or dispersed so that we could have cheap margarine and movie popcorn. Seems a bad bargain to me!

Your analogy between the baby monitor and pet/zoo cams is really terrific, as it highlights so many species-specific distinctions between how we look at (spy on) others. I recently used a baby monitor for the first time while babysitting my 2-year-old niece and was surprised that it did feel a bit intrusive (do parents feel this way, I wonder?). I think part of that feeling is future-oriented--as in, I know that in time she will come to understand the technology and that understanding will be part of what makes it no longer appropriate or even useful to use the monitor. But my unease wasn't just about her capacity to grow into a being with rights to privacy; watching her sleep and play in her room, there's no denying that she experiences a sense of privacy and solitude now. We of course accept this encroachment on young children's privacy (if we feel it as such) as a small price to pay for attending to very real concerns about their safety and well-being. If we acknowledge that animals' possess a sense of privacy, this comparison shows how much more unjustifiable it is that we regularly violate it for the sake of our entertainment. And yet…as you point out Susan, zoo cams play a really important function in protecting against the abuse and poor living conditions of captive animals. If the intended function of surveilling defenseless young humans is to protect them from themselves and from environmental threats and intruders, then the unintended function of surveilling zoo animals is to protect them from their us, their human captors/guardians. That is one chilling contrast. And it begs the question, is it possible to further appropriate zoo cams as a mode of speaking up for/defending animals? Does anyone know of any media activist projects that have taken this up?

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