Build Empathy for Local Wildlife with Remote Cameras

An important aspect of humane education is building students’ empathy for other animals, including wildlife. One method of building empathy for wildlife is providing experiences that allow people to observe the animals firsthand. At the Detroit Zoo, guests have many opportunities to watch exotic wildlife in expansive, naturalistic habitats. However, people’s opportunities to observe local wildlife can be more limited. Deer, raccoons and other animals may share our local environment, but some of them are nocturnal and tend to be inactive when most people are active. Other animals are fearful of humans and try to avoid contact.

To address this challenge, Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) educators are adopting a technology commonly used by conservation researchers: remote cameras. Remote cameras allow researchers to record images and videos of wildlife without the need to be physically present to press a button. While researchers use these images to monitor wildlife populations, humane educators can also use them to give students a look at the local wildlife who may be hard to spot. These experiences can help students empathize with their animal neighbors.

City Critters is just one of the programs where DZS educators are using remote cameras. In this program, DZS educators train preservice teachers to lead humane education lessons to elementary school students. The 45-minute lessons include an activity in which the students analyze images from a network of remote cameras in Detroit parks, operated by the University of Michigan’s Applied Wildlife Ecology (AWE) Lab. By analyzing these images, the students learn about the raccoons, opossums, squirrels, geese and other wildlife who share their local environment. Remote cameras are also incorporated into The Humane Education Horticulture Program. In this program, DZS educators have helped students at Oakland County Children’s Village install remote cameras in a nearby forest and wetland so they can identify the wildlife in the area. Over the past month, the cameras have recorded images of many animals, including rabbits and deer.

MOULTRIE DIGITAL GAME CAMERAAn image of a white-tailed deer recorded near Oakland County Children’s Village

By observing images and videos of local wildlife, students learn more about these animals’ experiences. For example, they may learn that rabbits are most active in the early morning, or that deer often raise their heads when they are feeding. Over time, students may also come to see themselves as members of a more-than-human community. For instance, the students at Children’s Village are now noting other signs of wildlife on their campus, including tracks, scat and vocalizations.

You can use remote cameras to build empathy for local wildlife, too! One option is to participate in Michigan ZoomIN, a public science project in which people can help researchers at the AWE Lab analyze images from their remote camera network. For more information about the project, click here: zooniverse.org/projects/michiganzoomin/michigan-zoomin. Another option is to purchase a remote camera and install it in your backyard. You can find a wide range of cameras for sale online or at your local sporting goods store. If you install a remote camera in your backyard, be sure not to bait it with food or other attractants. Baiting cameras is not necessary, and it can harm the animals.

– Stephen Vrla and Claire Lannoye-Hall are curators of education for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Humane Education: A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

A selfie or photo with an exotic animal may take only a second to snap and it may even win you a few “likes” on social media, but if you could see the world through the eyes of that animal, you probably wouldn’t want to take the picture. Animals who are taken from the wild or are bred in captivity to become tourist attractions in unaccredited roadside or traveling zoos are often kept chained, isolated, fed inadequate diets, denied veterinary care and/or drugged – for their entire life. The main concern for the individuals and companies who keep these animals isn’t animal well-being but rather, the bottom line.

The good news is that people are becoming more aware of the reality of these situations. In late 2016, for example, TripAdvisor made the decision to stop selling tickets for elephant rides, swim-with-dolphin experiences and attractions that allow people to pet tigers and other exotic animals. This was the result of a campaign launched by World Animal Protection showing that these animal tourist attractions cause psychological and physical trauma, shorten the animals’ lives and also result in even more animals being taken from the wild.

In December of 2017, Instagram began notifying people of potential behind-the-scenes animal abuse for a wide range of wildlife hashtags. If you search for “#slothselfie”, for example, a message will pop up that states, “Animal abuse and the sale of endangered animals or their parts is not allowed on Instagram. You are searching for a hashtag that may be associated with posts that encourage harmful behavior to animals or the environment.” You then have the option to be routed to their website to learn more about wildlife exploitation.

In October of 2017, World Animal Protection launched the Wildlife Selfie Code campaign, asking people to commit to taking “cruelty-free selfies” in the Amazon rainforest. They’re asking people to take a pledge on their website to “help filter wildlife cruelty out of tourism, and make sure your voice is heard”. Again, this is another opportunity for us to further spread awareness of the reality behind these animal tourist attractions.

These animal photo ops are often thought of as things that happen abroad. You might be surprised to learn that these incidents occur in the Metro Detroit area as well. Just this summer, a local festival announced that they were planning to have tigers at their event, offering photo opportunities. After significant pressure from the public, they decided to forego the tiger attraction. This is a great reminder that we shouldn’t be afraid to speak up! Collectively, our voices and actions truly do make a difference.

The next time you see an animal being forced to perform or interact with people, ask yourself:

  • What does a day in the life of this animal look like?
  • What happens to the animal when he/she isn’t being shown?
  • Where did this animal come from originally?
  • How does he/she live? What does he/she do?
  • What is their circadian rhythm (the natural daily cycles we experience that affect our physiology and behavior)? Is it normal for them to be out at this time of day?
  • What is the lifetime care plan for this animal?
  • What is his/her ability to choose? Is the animal participating because he/she wants to?
  • What does the world look like from the animal’s perspective? Try to imagine the experience through their eyes, ears and nose.

Always remember to take photos of wildlife from a distance, without disturbing them, in their natural habitat. If ever you have concerns about the well-being an animal that you encounter being forced to perform or interact with people, document what you see and report the situation to the appropriate authorities. Together, we can make a positive difference in the lives animals.

– Lisa Forzley is the curator of humane education for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Berman Academy for Humane Education.