Last year, more than 134 million people visited zoos and aquariums in the United States-more than attended all major sporting events combined. Even more telling, nearly 60 percent of households include dogs or cats; more than fifty percent of pets receive holiday presents; and one-quarter of pet dogs sleep in their owners’ beds (you know who you are). In fact, 10 percent of dog owners are more attached to their dogs than to their spouses.Evidence of our aching need for animal companionship doesn’t stop there. Look, for example, at trends in high-tech toys. Six million Tamagotchis-small LCDs displaying pseudopods that “eat” and “grow”-were preordered for U.S. sale, after sales of four million in Japan. Sales of the Gremlin-like, voice-mimicking Furby are in the tens of millions. Sony’s digital dog, Aibo, costs nearly 10 times as much as a real dog, but 3,000 of them sold out in 20 minutes; 100,000 have been sold since. Tiger sold 10 million Poo-Chi robot dogs last year. Cloning of pets has emerged as a real business. The human yearning to be in touch with animals is very deep indeed.
To gaze into the eyes of an animal, even for an instant, is to experience an awesome connection with another living being, transcending the species gap. It may be hide-and-seek with a puppy. Or frolicking with a dolphin (and having the odd feeling that the dolphin’s brain is considerably larger than your own). Or peeking out of a tent and being face to face with a polar bear. Whether playful, inspiring or terrifying (if you’re seen as lunch), these encounters have a power that can’t be conveyed in words. You have to feel it firsthand: not on a movie screen, not in virtual reality, but in real reality.
Most of us don’t know what we’re missing, of course. Few people have the privilege of visiting locales such as the magical, otherworldly Galapagos Islands. Setting foot there is like visiting a zoo, except you are the animal on display. A mockingbird flits over and lands on your head. Take a swim and seals join in. Penguins, who are so comically awkward on land, streak past in the water like little F-15 jets. Visiting the place blew Charles Darwin’s mind and inspired him to write On the Origin of Species, one of the most momentous books in science.
But it’s said that one island in the archipelago is different. There, the birds and seals run away and hide. A visitor, taken aback by such un-Galapagos-like antisocial behavior, asked what was wrong. “A few centuries ago,” his guide said, “hunting was done on this island, and only here. The animals learned to fear man-and they never forgot.” Perhaps that one island was a lot like the rest of our world.
Just as this article was going to press, a tanker carrying 900,000 liters of diesel oil ran aground by San Cristobal island at the eastern end of the Galapagos (www.galapagos.org) and began leaking. Seals 50 kilometers away turned up with gooey oil in their fur. The extent of the damage is not yet known, but the consequences of such a poisonous wreck could be catastrophic in that singular, fragile ecosystem. It may be an extinction event for many species. The Charles Darwin Research Station is now urgently soliciting funds for help online (see www.darwinfoundation.org).
Halfway around the world we find another example of a remote ecosystem that offers the most adventurous among us a glimpse of the wild, and that, like the Galapagos, is suffering from human presence. Everyone I know who has encountered the mountain gorillas in the Virunga rain forest on the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the Congo considers it to be a life-altering experience. Yet vital habitat is being destroyed as sprawling human populations encroach. Amid the regional wars and horrific genocide, gorillas seem of little consequence. The animals are often killed by marauding soldiers and slaughtered for “bushmeat” by poachers. It might as well be cannibalism: about 98 percent of our DNA is the same. Fewer than 650 of these gorillas remain.
As wilderness gets ever more rare, one of the best ways that technology can serve us is in bringing us closer to the wild without destroying it. Recently, new technologies have enabled us to be “with” wild animals in a way never before possible. Cinematographer Daniel Zatz uncovered a useful clue when he was in the field struggling to capture good footage. He just couldn’t get close enough to film the wildlife: the animals ran away.