commissioned by the folks at Build-a-Bear Workshop revealed that more than half of the 2,000 American adults they asked still have a teddy bear from childhood. Over forty percent of those still sleep with the bear. What’s more, thirty percent of respondents said that when they thought about a childhood stuffed animal, they recalled a feeling of comfort.
In fact, there’s a lot of research about the usefulness of teddy bears, from soothing childrens’ fears about medical procedures to curbing social anxiety and healing trauma.
Our Relationship With Real Bears
However, human relationships with living bears are fraught with tension. “Attacks on humans elicit considerable media attention, which can lead people to overestimate the risk of an attack and, eventually, cause negative public reactions and opposition towards conservation actions,” notes a group of conservationists
who studied reactions to human-bear conflicts. “Additionally, when using negative framing and graphic contents to describe an attack, the media does not help to correctly inform people on how to avoid encountering large carnivores and how to behave in case of an encounter… it rather unnecessarily alarms the public about a phenomenon that is actually very rare.”
Accordingly, Western Wildlife Outreach estimates that over 50,000 North American bears are legally killed by hunters each year. Others are poached. After death, their gallbladders, paws, claws, and genitalia may be removed to be used as medicine. In some places, bears are kept in endless captivity, drained of their bile in inhumane ways (about which I’ll spare you the details).
Yet, fascinating new research suggests that humans may realize wellbeing benefits from bears in less intrusive ways.
The Benefits of Watching Bears From Afar
A new study published in the journal Human Dimensions of Wildlife suggests that humans may safely and humanely benefit from interactions with live bears—as long as we do so from a distance.
[Read: “Delightful and Bear-able Sabbath Practices.”]
Researchers asked people to watch webcam footage of bears at Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska using the website explore.org. Afterward, viewers completed a survey with two prompts: “Has viewing brown bears provided any health or healing benefits to you?” and “Feel free to share how viewing the Katmai bears on a webcam has impacted you.”
Studying over 6,900 survey responses, researchers looked for common themes, revealing:
- People expressed an improvement in quality of life, relaxation, and reduction of stress, offering reflections such as, “Watching the bears is like therapy to me” and “It is my stress relief break at work.”
- Respondents also pointed to the ease of access to nature for mobility-challenged or home-bound people and their caretakers. “I am home-bound, and the cams are just a wonderful thing,” offered one person. Another remarked, “I take care of my 94-year-old grandma, and ever since I started watching [the bears], I’ve noticed that I’m not so stressed out.”
- Beyond health benefits, watching the cams had educational value and changed people’s perceptions of nature. As a result of watching the bears, participants wanted to learn more about animals in general and become more involved in their conservation.
Alleviating Stigmas & Barriers
The researchers noted that webcams might also help alleviate the stigma related to mental health services because it could be done privately in people’s homes. Further, they suggested the practice could overcome barriers to nature experiences that many people experience, such as those who live far from wild spaces, lack transportation, or cannot afford to travel.
Even for those who can get to nature, our busy lifestyles often keep us from doing so. It’s estimated that over 80 percent of people in the U.S. now live in urban/suburban locations, and 90 percent spend the vast majority of their time indoors. So, webcam viewing could help bring nature to urban dwellers—and encourage them to head outdoors. Try watching bears now!
What Are the Ethics of Looking at Animals?
Conservationists have long pointed to our tendency to conserve the species we find cute and fluffy, like pandas and koalas. During my webcam viewing, I wondered: Would people experience the same relaxation and feelings of wellbeing from rodent cams? Or snake cams?
This reflection opened wider. First, I noticed humanity’s shared presumption that we can breach the privacy of animals by placing webcams wherever we want to. Just think about it, if a live-feed webcam appeared outside your window, how would you feel? I suspect most people would consider the act ethically questionable. It would also be legally problematic, subject to state audio and visual surveillance laws.
Second, I thought more broadly. What are the ethics of looking at animals? Do the potential benefits outweigh the breach of privacy? I wondered, are these questions the musings of an over-reflective animal chaplain? Or do we all have some responsibility to reconsider our presumed photographic dominion?
[Read: “Delightful and Bear-able Sabbath Practices.”]
Honestly, I don’t know. But I am feeling called to apologize to one of my feline companions, Deacon. Last week, I posted a photo of him, taken while he was blissed out on his back, one paw extended high up in the air. Giggling, I suggested that he might be praising Jesus. In hindsight, my laugh was respectful to neither Deacon nor Jesus.
So perhaps there’s another benefit to add to the webcam study—the potential for deep inquiry into our photographic relationship with animals. And, accordingly, a moratorium on cat butt memes.
Want more inspiration from animals? Explore the sacred side of snakes.