Thousands of people around the world are spending hours online this month watching a bear cam in Katmai National Park and Preserve in southern Alaska.
It’s livestreaming the action at the noisy, bustling falls on Brooks River, where the salmon are leaping out of the water and brown bears are trying to snag the slippery sockeyes.
Last year alone the park’s bear cam attracted more than 22 million views.
(People in Brazil? Big bear fans.)
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Behind the scenes, two researchers from Kansas State University are studying this bear love-in. They want to know whether people have the same emotional response to experiencing animals virtually, online, as they do seeing them in person at the park.
Do people watching on webcams care enough from far away to want to help protect and save animals?
The project could boost conservation efforts and help national parks build support around the world among people who might never get the chance to visit, the researchers say.
Clearly, people love the bears at Katmai. Why, we had to ask? Why do people love bears?
Science can answer that.
Bears are “Charismatic Megafauna.”
“That’s one of the things I try to dig into from a very academic, nerdy perspective,” said Jeffrey Skibins, assistant professor of park management and conservation at K-State and one of the researchers working on the Katmai study.
“A lot of my work is based around a field of science called conservation psychology. So I’ve published a lot of papers on what we call ‘charismatic megafauna.’” Translation: a really big, attractive animal and, in the case of bears, a little bit like humans.
“It’s hard to get people excited about a mouse,” Skibins said. “But everybody can get excited about a bear.”
Skibins’ research takes him around the world. “And what I’ve seen, regardless of where I go, there are certain aspects of an animal that … broadly speaking are going to be attractive to a majority of people,” he said. “And bears? Boy, when God made bears he hit it out of the park.
“They’re cute and cuddly. I mean, you just want to reach out and scratch them behind the ears and grab their cheeks and pet them like you do your dog.”
They remind people of human babies, too, he said.
“They have what we call, the technical term is neonatal features. In other words, they have a face very similar to a newborn human. They have a very large face relative to their body, they have forward-facing eyes and they display characteristics that are easy to anthropomorphize. In other words, they’re easy to associate with the way humans act.
“So we see them scratch their ears, they yawn, they have a very contented look on their face. They make it very easy for people to identify with because it’s mirroring human behaviors and seemingly expressing human emotions.”
When humans can see themselves in an animal like that, “it’s easy to develop empathy and concern around that animal,” Skibins said.
“And that ultimately, that empathy and that concern for their well-being is really what we’re seeing as the most effective way of engaging people, of encouraging them to do something for conservation, as opposed to the fear-messaging, or the guilt-messaging, or the dire circumstances ‘the sky is falling’ messaging.
“That’s not as effective as trying to appeal to people’s innate concern and empathy for these animals.”
Skibins and his K-State colleague, Ryan Sharp, also an assistant professor of park management and conservation, were already researching Katmai when the park’s head of interpretation asked them to study the park’s popular webcams.
They began their research last summer, surveying people watching the webcams and interviewing park visitors.
“Our goal for this first round was to compare the effects of seeing the bears in person, live, at Katmai National Park, or to watching them from Brazil or from Kansas or from New York on the webcam,” Skibins said.
“And then seeing one, if you watch these bears on the webcam, do you have any of the same reactions that you do if you see them live? And two, if you do, are there differences between those, the online experience versus the on-site experience?
“What we’re trying to find is how can you reach more people doing what you’re doing? The webcams give us a tremendous portal to reach people around the globe who may never set foot at Katmai.”
Their first phase of research revealed that the bear cams have a lot of fans in Brazil.
“So the question is why? So what’s interesting to Brazilians about brown bears,” Skibins said. “And conversely, what would be interesting to other cultures and groups around the planet and what other animals are of interest.
“We can see this very easily happening in African safaris and rainforest expeditions and whale-watching and the sorts of things where you have a known presence of wildlife that you could begin capturing via a webcam and reaching other audiences.
“So who’s interested in lions? Who’s interested in pandas? Who’s interested in koalas?”
Skibins and Sharp are just now getting into the meat of their research. A recent grant from the National Park Service will help them continue the work, and they’re headed to the park in August.
But here’s what they know already: Both online viewers and visitors to the park had a strong emotional connection to the bears and concern for their well-being.
Skibins was shocked when park visitors said they would be OK with a hypothetical — he emphasized hypothetical — situation of park management restricting viewing to keep the bears safe.
Here’s what he also knows: For all the beauty of technology, watching the bears online with a cup of coffee in hand is not the same as seeing them up close.
So don’t stop going to the parks, he said.
“Heavens yes. A thousand times yes. By all means, go to the parks,” he said. “One of the main things that we don’t want to happen is for people to take away the idea that, ‘Oh, I can have the same experience online as I do going into the park.’ And that simply isn’t true. The experience is very different.”