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Webcams burnish zoo's animal appeal

By Sally Holland, CNN
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Animals gain fans through zoo's web cams
  • National Zoo's underwater camera watches a Pacific octopus
  • Pandas now have 38 cameras and team that picks the best view for streaming
  • Bear cameras are housed in housing designed for prison cells
  • Zoo hopes to add cameras to research facility not open to the public

Washington (CNN) -- Putting a camera into saltwater and watching a live feed from that camera is nothing new for researchers at the National Zoo in Washington.

It may not be as deep as BP's cameras watching a mile-down oil spill, but the zoo has had a live feed from its octopus tank for a some time.

It is just one of around 100 cameras that the zoo uses for animal research, 20 of which can be accessed by anyone with a high-speed connection and a computer.

The zoo's two pandas have 38 cameras in their enclosure alone. A team of volunteers work in the panda control room to choose the camera with the best view and stream it out to the world.

"Our pandas accrued a huge following," said zoo director Dennis Kelly in a recent interview. "Of course, we're still using the recordings and what's going on with pandas for research, but boy, what a following our panda cam got over the years."

The giant Pacific octopus is another popular webcam. The camera is built to withstand cold saltwater 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It also is able to handle suction from the tentacles of Octavius, the zoo's resident octopus.

Web specialist Michael Thorpe said when they first put the camera into Octavius' tank, "the octopus got curious, came over and surrounded the camera and we basically had to hold and wait until the octopus eventually was fed a piece of shrimp and decided to let go."

Another odd camera location is the burrow of the naked mole-rat. In the wilds of the African desert, the hairless, blind mammals would be five or six feet underground. In the zoo, the naked mole-rats have a series of plastic tubes that replicate tunnels. The camera is at the intersection of a few of those tubes.

"It's a fun camera because you are seeing eye-to-eye, cheek-to-cheek, what a naked mole-rat is seeing," said Kelly.

When deciding which animals will be on camera, researchers look for creatures with interesting stories to tell and that have good lighting in their enclosures. The animal's size and strength are also factors, Thorpe said.

"In some cases, like for example the bears, you either have to keep the camera completely out of their way or install something that is very, very rugged so it can't be a threat to the animal in any way."

For the bears, they went with a camera with a heavy-duty metal housing that was designed for prison cells.

The cameras do occasionally cause unexpected worries for the viewers. Sometimes the animals go off-camera, or lie down and stop moving for a few minutes. Then the phones at the zoo light up with callers asking zookeepers to check on the animal because they think it might be dead.

"In fact, it might be asleep or might be rolled over or the camera angle's bad. But we have had some interesting folks very worried about what's going on with their favorite animal," said Kelly.

He hopes to increase the number of web-streamed cameras to include more animals at the zoo's research facility in Front Royal, Virginia. The general public currently cannot visit this location.

"As we grow, we have built into every new exhibit the capability of cameras that are getting more and more sophisticated," Kelly said.