The Digital Ecologies of Animal Display

Kartik Chugh

The lockdown induced by the coronavirus pandemic witnessed a rather fascinating development in which wildlife cams gained unprecedented popularity. Millions of viewers tuned into the live streams of nest-cams, bird-cams, and crittercams to watch the compelling drama of animal life unfold. Zoos and aquariums also broadcasted live shows to keep the viewers gripped. The quarantine ecologies of animals exemplify some of the new geographies of animal display that have been created in the digital era.

The last few decades have seen major developments in visual technologies of digital imaging and filming. A variety of techniques that involve the use of slow-motion videos, time-lapse, bird’s eye footage, crittercams, drones, camera traps, etc., are now deployed by filmmakers and scientists to enrol animals into the networks of digital geographies. Just like in zoos, the most sought after animals in digital media are the charismatic, or invisible ones such as tigers, panthers, apes, and polar bears. Similar to the zoo, it is the geographical displacement of animals from their distant sites of filming to the sights of what Davies (2000) calls “electronic zoos”, that grants value to the images of animals and make them appealing. This can be achieved in several ways. For instance, the images of exotic animals are accumulated by wildlife professionals and companies (such as BBC, Planet Earth). These images are then presented in different wildlife film festivals across the globe in the form of documentaries where they are watched, rewarded and also sold to television networks and video streaming services. The images of wildlife broadcasted on TV programmes and streaming services are what form the collection of the electronic zoo. 

It is interesting to note how the digital geographies of nature films construct nature in a certain way where humans are mostly invisible. By shrouding the interactions that humans have with animals in the creation of these representations, the digital ecologies of animal display construct a ‘pristine’ image of the wilderness. Such fabrication of nature is not only romantic but also creates a false dichotomy between nature and humans.

The ‘spectacular’ construction of nature in the documentary film “Our Planet”.

The nature in these films is also constructed to be spectacular. The spectacle is achieved by creating a dramatic narrative and by producing stunning, close-up images of exotic animals. The spectacle is made even more immersive by the use of surround sound experience, 3D images, lighting, special effects, IMAX screens and so on. What I find particularly interesting is how these digital geographies of films have the potential to bring back to life the animals which have gone extinct and to create novel ecologies of animals unknown. Films like Annihilation (2018) where one can witness novel creatures, and the Jurassic Park series where dinosaurs become de-extinct exemplify some of the potential these digital ecologies hold.

Now let’s turn our attention away from the films and return to the virtual zoo. In the last decade or so, digitized versions of zoos have become increasingly common. These zoos are basically an agglomeration of tools, gadgets, and websites that are created to simulate a visit to the zoo. For e.g., In the digital Dino Zoo created by the Queensland University of Technology, people can interact with life-sized digital dinosaurs, who with the use of laser sensors and Artificial Intelligence can detect nearby humans and respond as a real dino would! Zoos such as the Phoenix Zoo, and the San Diego Zoo offer virtual programs, digital safaris, virtual field trips along with a live stream of critter cams and online meetings with animals such as pandas, koalas, elephants, rhinos – all from the comfort of your home. Similarly, natural history museums and aquariums now offer a 360° tour of their exhibits. For instance, all three floors of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History can now be fully explored using VR headsets or by simply panning and clicking on your computer screen. Digital technology is not just used to exhibit animals but also to enhance visitors’ experiences in zoos – from purchasing tickets to mobile apps to digital mapping which allows visitors to create their own adventures. Moreover, these technologies are also utilised to take care of animals by analysing their feed and health. Oh, and if this integration of digital with corporeal wasn’t awesome enough, you would be amazed to know that the Orangutans at Zoo Atlanta play games on touchscreen computers! The idea is to study more about their cognitive abilities but also to enrich the visitor’s experience by showing how these creatures are similar to us. 

A still from the game Zero Horizon Dawn. Image credits: Playstation Europe (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Another way in which people encounter virtual natures is through digital games. While games such as Pokemon GO make use of Augmented Reality to display virtual animals as an extended part of the real world, other games such as Horizon Zero Dawn force us to rethink nature by offering novel ecologies of immersive digital otherworlds. In the world of Horizon, it is the machines that function as animals for human civilization. These machines are also responsible for creating and maintaining the digital ecosystems of this world. Interestingly, the ecosystems of the Horizon world are what Brown (2021) calls “doubly-digital” because they are digital both in our world (the game is digital) and within the Horizon’s world. 

In my previous article, I demonstrated how traditional zoos can also be thought of as amphitheatres where animals are disciplined to behave, breed and live in specific ways. An uncanny similarity can be drawn with the digital animals. Animals in games such as Horizon are programmed to behave, perform and live in a specific way that becomes predictable as you spend time in the game. Although animals in nature films are not coerced to perform in specific ways in front of cameras, post-production editing means that their performance is controlled by controlling their framing and the narrative. And while the circulation of animals in menageries and zoos was controlled by the use of bars, cages, and enclosures, the copyright agreements for games, films and digital media form the means to control the movement of animal images in the digital worlds.   

The new technologies of the digital world (such as AR, VR, VFX, etc.) not only create a mixed reality but also sets in motion a new cycle of animal accumulation by creating novel geographies and ecologies of enrolling and representing animals. As digital reality becomes more prominent, we will witness novel ways in which nature is produced, and new forms of human-animal interactions. 

References

  • Davies, G. (2000). Virtual animals in electronic zoos: The changing geographies of animal capture and display. In Philo, C., & Wilbert, C. (Eds.). Animal spaces, beastly places: new geographies of human-animal relations. Routledge.
  • Brown, M. (2021, March). Fabricating nature: Reading nature and artificiality in Horizon’s Zero Dawn’s doubly-digital ecosystems [Conference Presentation]. Digital Ecologies Workshop. 
Kartik Chugh
Kartik Chugh

Kartik is currently working as a Research Assistant at the Himalaya Lab at Nature Conservation Foundation. His research interests centre around the political ecologies and geographies of human-animal interactions. When not engaged in research work, Kartik loves playing football.

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