OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — As a cat lover, the story on her local news about a tiger cub that had been rejected by its mom hooked Terry Bronson almost immediately.
Zoya, a Siberian tiger cub born at the Philadelphia Zoo, was motherless. The news report included information about a plan to move Zoya to Oklahoma City with the hope she could integrate into a litter of Sumatran tigers that had been born at the zoo a week before.
“I have cats so I was curious, did the experiment work?” Bronson wondered.
Bronson has never been to the Oklahoma City Zoo or Oklahoma City for that matter. But from her home in Santa Rosa, California, the 67-year-old found herself immersed in the world of the tiger cam viewed through the zoo’s website.
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“I got hooked,” she said.
Webcams at zoos are not new. They’ve been around since webcams. But high-speed internet and the ability to broadcast clear images anywhere in the world have made some zoos feel local to people who don’t live anywhere near them, The Oklahoman reported.
The tiger cam had 180,000 unique viewers when the cam was active.
“Their fan base came from well beyond Oklahoma City,” zoo chief marketing Director Greg Heanue said. “We had people from the Czech Republic and everywhere else you can think of. It’s interesting when you start getting feedback from all over the world. We had people from Australia complaining about the position of the camera.”
Back in Santa Rosa, Bronson was facing the specter of wildfires creeping ever-closer to her home. The tiger cam was a joyful distraction.
“There was a lot of tension,” Bronson said. “It was nice to look at the tigers and see what they were up to. I got lost in their world a little bit.”
Bronson works from home and kept a browser tab on her computer open to the cubs cam all day. She watched so much she began to notice differences in each cub’s personality. Zoya is fearless, while the males were more reserved.
“You get attached,” she said. “You feel like you have a vested interest in how they develop. They have distinct personalities like pets do.”
She was so moved she made a donation to Zoo Friends, and hopes to one-day travel to Oklahoma City to see the cubs in person. The zoo has discontinued the tiger cam, and has instead created a cam to follow their Red pandas.
“Since they’ve been outdoors there’s been no cameras and I’ve kind of been going through withdrawals,” she said.
That someone connected with animals so far from their home through web cameras comes as no surprise to Amy Boshnack who heads Animal Planet’s digital and social media operation. The network produced “The Zoo” a documentary program that follows staff at the Bronx Zoo.
In conjunction with promoting the show, Animal Planet held a 10-hour marathon of Facebook Live events at zoos around the country, including Oklahoma City, where one of the zoo’s sea lions was given an ultrasound that revealed it was pregnant.
“There’s just something that is so innocent about animals,” Boshnack said. “At their core, they are authentic. They are who they are. They allow us an escape that we don’t always have, and people connect with that.”
The Facebook Live events attracted two million viewers and thousands of shares on the social media platform.
“It is a phenomenon,” Boshnack said of social media. “There is a voyeuristic nature about it. You have this ability to be in the moment even if you’re a thousand miles away. Being able to watch animals anytime you want is a wonderful thing and it’s an area that we’re going to engage in.”
Technology has allowed for better connections, crisper images and the ability to spread the word that the camera exists. But it does raise other questions, like if people can see animals on cameras 24/7 will they actually come out to the zoo.
“That discussion point has come up, are we giving away something that people would otherwise come and see?” Oklahoma City Zoo executive director Dwight Lawson said. “But I think it’s the opposite. It tends to get people engaged. You have people who really get addicted to it, and I think that actually gets people to come out.”
Making sure the cameras are unobtrusive and don’t affect the day-to-day life of animals is also a consideration.
“There are some challenges to it,” Lawson said. “You have to put the camera where people can see what’s going on, but also where it doesn’t bother the animals. The first time we put the tiger cam up, Lola noticed it right away and she took it off the wall, so we had to move it.”
While the tiger cam is off the air, the zoo launched the Red panda cam Nov. 22. It drew 3,500 visitors in less than 24 hours. Other cams are planned in the future. The zoo’s grizzly bears are beginning to dig their winter den, and a time-lapse camera is one idea to chronicle that event.
“We’re going to have a streaming camera up year-round,” Heanue said. “The pandas are perfect for that because they’re super active. There’s a squirrel that’s cohabitating with them right now. It’s a lot of fun to watch.”
Bronson has added a trip to Oklahoma City to see them in person to her bucket list. She was so moved by her experience with the tiger cam, she donated to Friends of the Oklahoma City Zoo.
“It was a thank-you for the time and effort that went into setting up the camera and maintaining it,” Bronson said. “It was also to encourage more cameras, as I feel they provide an educational and entertaining outreach. And that’s never a bad thing.”
Information from: The Oklahoman, http://www.newsok.com