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Ape Cam: Zoo Pets and Surveillance Culture

by Ethan Tussey

by Susan Nance for IN MEDIA RES

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.

Ape Cam

Footage of an ape

from Silly Apes at San Diego Zoo (2012)
Creator: San Diego Zoo patron
Distributor: YouTube
Posted by Ethan Tussey
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