The Future of Wildlife Encounters

The Future of Wildlife Encounters


Our animal chaplain explores the latest in technological help for lions, tigers, and bears—oh my!

It’s a quandary every animal lover knows: We want to be with animals, yet we are becoming increasingly attuned to the potential harm that arises for them when they are held captive for human viewing, or when we traipse into their habitats, camera in hand, to capture them in other ways.

How can we reconcile our desire to see animals with their needs for safety and privacy? Here are a few thoughts that use emerging technology to answer that question.

Let’s Go to the (Cruelty-Free) Circus!

It’s been eons since I’ve been to a circus, and for a very good reason. Circuses are notorious for harming animals, and pressure from animal advocates has caused many to close or pivot their approach to entertainment. In some states—including California, Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, and New Jersey—it’s now against the law to use certain exotic or wild animals in traveling animal acts or circuses. Countries around the world have restrictions about using wild animals for this type of human entertainment, including the UK, Ireland, Belgium, Austria, Mexico, India, Greece, and Cyprus. Legislation is underway in many others.

As animal-based circuses have closed, innovative replacements have appeared. Cirque du Soleil fills our need to see fear-defying humans do spectacular things but lacks an animal presence, leaving a gap. Recent innovations in holographic imagery and augmented reality show great promise. For example, consider “animal-free circuses,” such as the German Circus-Theater Roncalli, which features live human performers and holographic animals, all performing with the energy you’d expect from a circus.

As the lights dim and the music swells, human acrobats soar through the air with grace and agility, defying gravity. Exotic animals materialize before the audience, their movements fluid and lifelike. Rendered in stunning detail, they cavort and play, as if alive. Of course, the usual suspects of clowns and jesters engage in their whimsical antics, eliciting laughter from the audience. At Circus-Theater Roncalli, you’ll even find vegan and vegetarian snacks that are animal-friendly. [See a preview of the circus here.]

Cirque du Soleil and Circus-Theater Roncalli are just two examples of productions where audiences can be entertained and experience the nostalgia of the circus without keeping animals captive, subjecting these creatures to the hardships of travel or inducing fear in them. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) maintains a helpful list of animal-free circuses around the world.

Advocating for Change

When I first moved to New York City, I remember a news story announcing exactly where we should be to catch the live circus procession of elephants and other animals parading through the Queens Midtown Tunnel on their way to Madison Square Garden, where they would perform.

Now, anyone who has ever been through an urban city tunnel should take pause with this idea. Why are we subjecting animals to car exhaust fumes, let alone the noise of our bustling cities? I was heartbroken.

Well, if the circus is coming to your town, here are some things you can do to help advocate for change:

  • Encourage your local school board not to arrange field trips to the circus or promote the circus. (Promoters often partner with school boards to get kids excited.)

  • Urge your local authorities to perform animal inspections. Google to find a humane investigator or wildlife agent in your area.

  • Contact a protest organizer for help in creating a demonstration.

  • Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper outlining your concerns about traveling animal shows. Or post on your social media feeds that you do not support the abuse of animals for entertainment. Here are some helpful facts you can share to support your ethics.

Circus animals are taken from their local habitats, separated from their families when they are babies, forced to do unnatural acts (and often punished in the process of learning them), housed in cages, and transported in ways that are dangerous for their health and well-being. We can help make a difference for these animals, who ultimately belong in their natural habitats (or in sanctuaries if returning to their natural habitat is not possible).

Widening Our Ideas About Animal Experiences

With unbelievable speed, augmented and virtual reality can now transport us deep into a jungle or show us what the world looks like from a bee’s viewpoint. New ideas for animal experiences abound.

For example, Marshmallow Laser Feast’s “Sanctuary of the Unseen Forest” transports us deep into the Colombian Amazon. The World Wildlife Fund’s guides viewers through the savannahs of Kenya, the rain forests of Borneo, and the coral reefs of Indonesia—all from the comfort of their living room using Oculus headsets. And many zoos are implementing ways to see animals in their “native settings” (rather than exhibit cages) through onsite VR experiences while seated in high-tech motion seats.

These innovations provide a hopeful glimpse of a future when all circuses will be cruelty-free and animals would no longer be held captive in zoos.

Want more animal-inspired technology musings? Read “Asking AI About Animals and Emerging Forms of Intelligence.”

The Future of Wildlife Encounters

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