There was a situation with some bald eagles on the Internet the other day. The drama played out in a large, disheveled nest somewhere in Minnesota, in front of a camera that had been streaming the lives of those birds onto the Internet for the last two years.
Maybe you were watching. Or maybe you’d clicked over to one of the hundreds of other cameras set up around the world to funnel the real-time activities of various wild animals online: polar bears, hummingbirds, sea lions, wolves, jellyfish, whooping cranes, wood ducks. These wildlife cams aren’t delivering the kind of cheeky, viral animal video that the Internet is famous for - the tiny hamsters eating tiny burritos; Buttermilk the goat jumping over other goats - but a weird genre of non-narrated, unedited nature documentary that demands a lot more of its audience. All they offer is a sustained stream of animals doing whatever they happen to be doing, which, let’s be honest, often doesn’t look like that much. Bison stand around in Saskatchewan. A beaver sleeps in its dam. Every blip of action - every swipe a grizzly takes at a salmon in Alaska - tends to be offset by hours of moping and loafing. Often, you click on one of these cameras and there aren’t even any animals standing in the shot.
We spend our days racing around an Internet of BuzzFeed quizzes and Upworthy headlines and umbrage and porn - this churning, digital machine, increasingly optimized to dole out quick bursts of dopamine and wring all the clicks from our fingers. And still, loads of us also apparently like to keep a bunch of puffins open in another browser tab, just doing their thing. Last year, people spent more than a million hours watching the Audubon Society’s three seabird cameras alone. The Decorah eagle cam - set up at a bald eagle nest in Iowa in 2007, and generally credited, like a kind of avian “Sopranos,” with giving birth to this entirely new genre of slow-paced, binge-watched prestige drama - gets about a hundred million views a year.
Watching a wildlife cam dials down the loneliness of office life, maybe. Or it fills those last, hauntingly quiet hours before the kids come home from school. Or it’s a way to Zen out. Or it’s voyeurism. I’m not sure; until recently, I’d never given the appeal of these things much thought. All I know is, as I type this, I am, according to the counter at the bottom of the screen, one of 556,749 global Internet users watching a family of great horned owls sit in a tree in Texas. All the owls are asleep.
In any case, the bald eagle incident in Minnesota started like this: One Thursday night in early May, people watching the “EagleCam” run by the Nongame Wildlife Program of the state’s Department of Natural Resources noticed that one of the three eagle chicks in the nest was immobile. It appeared to be suffering. Bald eagle chicks are endearing, but not, in any traditional sense, cute: Their unwieldy, disproportionate wings and legs wind up contorting into all kinds of crazy tangles when they lie around the nest. (Go online and look for yourself, but to my eye, they look like coils of uncooked sausage coated in dryer lint.) The EagleCam audience had grown intensely attached to these young birds, though; after all, many had been following them since their eggs were laid back in February. The Nongame Wildlife Program makes a point of not naming the birds. But on Facebook, fans had taken to calling the chicks “Snap,” “Crackle” and “Pop.” Snap was the one having trouble. The little bird couldn’t get up to eat. Clearly, it wouldn’t survive much longer.
By the next morning, the Nongame Wildlife Program was bombarded by emails, phone calls and notes on social media, pleading with it to step in and get Snap some medical attention. Many people speculated - or at least hoped - that Snap was merely stuck in the muddy floor of the nest, and would need only a little jiggle to get free. (There was a good basis for this theory: Apparently, some EagleCam viewers also watch another bald eagle cam, set up elsewhere in Minnesota, and two years ago a chick there named Harmon had a similar problem.)
The Nongame Wildlife Program, however, had a policy to let nature play out and not intervene; it doesn’t want to compromise the essential eagleness of the eagles on its EagleCam. In an informational video about the EagleCam that the agency produced, a public relations specialist, Lori Naumann, addresses this exact situation hypothetically: “We’re not going to turn the camera off,” she says. “We’re not going to climb in the nest to try and save any chicks.” The agency had posted the video the previous day, only hours before anyone noticed Snap struggling.
The public outcry, Naumann later told me, was “getting more hostile as the day went on.” It became hard to ignore. At one point that Friday afternoon, she found herself on the phone with a woman who simply couldn’t accept the agency’s refusal to help Snap. “She was crying and crying and could not be consoled,” Naumann said.
Meanwhile, Naumann was periodically checking in on the eagles, via the EagleCam, and noticed that one of the adult birds had brought a dead female pigeon into the nest to feed its chicks. Naumann knows the pigeon was female because, once the eagles ripped it open, they discovered an egg inside. And so they ripped the pigeon’s egg open too and ate its contents. It must have made for great television, frankly. And yet, Naumann told me, none of the people criticizing the government for its willingness to let Snap die seemed to mind watching their birds tear apart a mother pigeon and her unborn chick. “So,” she ventured, “there was something contradictory about that.”
The emails kept coming that day. They were emphatic. Some were written in all caps. The Nongame Wildlife Program doesn’t disclose the eagle nest’s location, but a few people threatened to find it and rescue Snap themselves. Finally, late in the afternoon, Naumann got a call from the governor’s office; they were getting pummeled with phone calls, too, and wanted to know how the Nongame Wildlife Program intended to play this. A decision was made: Within a couple of hours, two utility workers got into a bucket truck and gently lifted Snap out of the nest. The chick wasn’t stuck in mud. It was badly injured - most likely trampled accidentally by one of its parents. It had a severely fractured wing and a systemic infection. There was no chance of recovery. Snap had to be euthanized.
“Fly high and fly free, little Snap - you taught us humans so much,” one EagleCam viewer posted a few days later on Facebook. The mood online was mournful, but grateful. There were frowny face emoji and bulging pink hearts. Hundreds of people thanked the Nongame Wildlife Program for listening to them and helping the chick, if only helping him die a more comfortable death. The community of EagleCam viewers felt it had been spared a lot of discomfort, too. Thanks, one woman wrote, for “not making us suffer watching it die. I’m not up for that learning experience.”
Naumann felt more conflicted. She explained to me that wildlife advocates generally look at these cameras as a way to deliver wildlife to people who don’t otherwise go out of their way to notice it. A live-stream of bears or birds brings nature to our tablets or phones with the long-term hope of eventually bringing us back to nature. “But maybe it’s kind of backfiring on us,” Naumann admitted. In Minnesota, the public had managed to turn the EagleCam into just another app. Rather than appreciate what they were seeing on its own terms, they saw something that didn’t feel right, swiped at it, and changed what was happening on the screen.
In truth, that isn’t so different from how we’ve always interacted with nature offline, too. We manipulate and manage the world’s wild things to reflect our ideas about what’s right and wrong, about what belongs in nature and what’s an abomination.
There was a time when America’s relationship with bald eagles was less mushy and sympathetic, more brutal. Around the turn of the 20th century, eagles, like all kinds of other avian and mammalian predators, were being eradicated. They were vilified as murderers and vermin. They were imagined to be grave threats to sheep and small livestock and competitors for fish and game birds.
Newspapers printed exaggerated stories of bald eagles attacking small children, blinding, disfiguring or even carrying them away in their claws, like a 3-year-old girl named Nettie in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in 1896. (An older girl was said to have stopped the attack by stabbing the bird in the head with her hatpin.) In 1901, The Los Angeles Times described an eagle seizing a 6-month-old baby. The child’s mother, Emma Goulding, reportedly chased the bird for eight miles on mule-back, then climbed a rocky cliff toward its nest, deflecting attacks from both the eagle and its mate as she ascended, killing both. Eventually, Goulding found her baby lying in the eagles’ nest unharmed, then tore her skirt up, fashioned it into a rope, and rappelled them both down to safety.
By the 1920s, all this vitriol and killing was pushing the bald eagle toward extinction. Early conservationists, trying to warn the public about the eagle’s predicament, found it challenging to defuse all the hatred that had gathered around the bird. Slowly, of course, public opinion turned in the bald eagle’s favor for a variety of reasons, few of which had anything to do intrinsically with bald eagles. The environmental historian Mark V. Barrow Jr. points out that passage of the first national law to protect eagles, the Bald Eagle Protection Act, in 1940, was partly a byproduct of newly booming patriotism on the cusp of World War II. And in the ‘60s, the bird became a sympathetic poster child for the new, pernicious form of damage that the pesticide DDT and other pollutants were leveling on the environment. It was one of the first species listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1973.
Even now, seven years after the species has been declared recovered and taken off that list, it remains protected by other state and federal statutes. We love bald eagles so much that we’ve swaddled them in a big tangle of regulation. (How close you are permitted to get to a bald eagle’s nest, under federal law, depends partly on what sort of vegetation is growing in the vicinity.) And even death can’t rip a bald eagle from that bureaucratic embrace: If you happen to find a bald eagle carcass anywhere in the United States, you are supposed to pack it up and ship it to the federal government’s National Eagle Repository, outside Denver, which has been set up to collect and distribute dead eagles to Native Americans for religious use. The process is carefully controlled: Those making requests from the Eagle Repository must file the appropriate paperwork. On the request form, there are boxes to check for “Pair of Wings Only,” “10 Quality Loose Feathers 1/88 wing; 2 tail3/8” and so on.
That inventory now includes Snap. The chick’s body arrived last week, by FedEx.
“RIP little one,” read one Facebook tribute to Snap. “You are no longer suffering, so soar high with all the eagles at the Rainbow Bridge.”
Well, I guess so. Our relationship with animals must have felt so much more straightforward, and less mushy, when we viewed them in more strictly utilitarian terms. A century ago, we had no use for bald eagles, and we believed they were a threat to the domestic animals and fish we did have a use for - and so it seemed reasonable for us to kill them like crazy. Now, emotional and aesthetic values have overpowered those pragmatic ones. When it comes to animals, we deal mostly in feelings: feelings of tenderness, or empathy or fear or awe; and in the bald eagle’s case, feelings of patriotism too. We began to love bald eagles, and so it seemed reasonable to protect them like crazy.
Those feelings about animals are so much harder to articulate and defend than the old calculus of useful and not useful. Even the name of Naumann’s department, the “Nongame Wildlife Program,” basically throws up its hands at explaining what, exactly, the kinds of animals it’s responsible for are actually for. All we know is they aren’t game animals - not the ones we want to hunt.
But the paradoxical upshot of Snap’s story may be that not killing certain animals is the way we use them now: The need these creatures are satisfying is our need to protect them. We have a destructive history when it comes to the natural world, and we all know more damage is inevitable. Maybe we latch on to the species we’ve willfully not destroyed as proof of our compassion, and as living props with which to demonstrate that compassion again and again. Maybe it just feels good to know they’re still out there, in some safe-seeming corner of the wilderness. And maybe that’s why we’ve pointed a bunch of webcams at them: so we can check in whenever we want and keep watch.
Jon Mooallem is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and the author of “Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America.”