Digital Media and Nonhuman Animals: Starting with Some Contentious Case Studies…

Nonhuman animals might not seem to be a very ‘natural’ subject to reflect on in relation to digital media, but you might be surprised at some of the issues that have been triggered – or ignored – in relation to technology and nonhuman animal ethics. Using the internet to further the interests of nonhuman animals is not particularly new, as can be seen in RSPCA Victoria’s contruction of online ‘identities’ for those in need of adoption, the online donation activities of World Animal Protection, the social media activity around Melbourne’s annual Dog Lover’s Show, the ‘Kitty Cam’ streamed by Cat Haven in Western Australia, and the use of hidden camera footage by Animals Australia and Animal Liberation Queensland to expose the mistreatment of various creatures large and small. And as if to underline the point, while writing this blog my phone alerted me to a video feed by @CatsProtection in which staff introduced cats in need of a home to visiting viewers on Periscope.

Few would argue with the value of such digital endeavours for nonhuman animal welfare, but some developments might be more contentious. Here I’m thinking of things like the ‘Pet Cams’ (see, for instance, the Wild Pet’s Eye View CameraTM) that enable owners to record and review what their dog or cat gets up to when they’re not around. It’s not difficult to find a plethora of user-generated videos on YouTube that showcase the latest footage of the interior of a garden hedge, the neighbour’s yard, or the exciting concrete slab at the back door. I can’t disparage this practice too much though, as there’s always the chance that a research study could be conducted on… yeah, you guessed it; there’s already been one:

Another interesting phenomenon is the emergence of DogTV, an Israeli-born cable television channel that has become a minor sensation in the United States. DogTV is purported to be significantly more visible to dogs than analogue television and of course provides dog owners with some peace of mind (or blissful ignorance?) that their loved ones will be entertained by more than the bugs on the ceiling when they leave the house. You may dedect some sarcasm in my description here, which is representative of my initial instinctual reaction when I first heard of DogTV, but when I watched the following video the issue proved somewhat more complex:

Another example that I found when I first began drawing on the intersection of digital technology and nonhuman animals to spark conversation among my Media students in 2013 was Apps for Apes. This project by Orangutan Outreach has used tablets to mentally stimulate captive orangutans in several facilities, including Zoo Atlanta, the Great Ape Trust, and the Smithsonian National Zoo. This is probably the best video clip I’ve seen that outlines the program:

I was reminded of this project recently when I saw the announcement of ‘world-first’ digital gaming technology that was enabling people to interact with organutans at the Melbourne Zoo:

Thinking about the implications of these examples, one might ask what purpose they serve, and many will voice this question with at least a hint of skepticism. I try to keep in balance the commonplace utopian and dystopian perspectives on the online world, reminding myself that understanding the sometimes ‘strange’ realm of contemporary digital media culture requires judgements to be set aside (or at least self-reflexively acknoweledged). Some phenomena make withholding moral evaluations a particularly difficult task though, and Tiffany is hardly immune from this – as seen in this last example:

Do such products and projects constitute evidence of a fetishisation with digital media, which seems to imply that anything ‘innovative’ or ‘new’ must be ‘good’? Do they serve to overshadow fundamental issues of nonhuman animal welfare? Or is there value in these developments – and for whom? There aren’t necessarily clear-cut ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers here, which is often where the best debate comes from – and hence why I use these examples to provoke student discussion. Only one thing is certain: there will be plenty more of these contentious case studies to ponder in the years (and the posts) to come…

Thanks for reading.