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Animal cams offer strange world views

Revelations about armadillo ears, flock behavior

By Marsha Walton

An alligator's view of a marsh
An alligator's view of a marsh

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CNN's Ann Kellan reports on tiny cameras that are attached to animals to study their behavior and movement. (July 14)
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 "Animal, Vegetable, Video" will be on display from Thursday through September 28 at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, California.

(CNN) -- Artist Sam Easterson's "Animal, Vegetable, Video" project offers a bizarre take on the reality TV craze: the world as seen by a buffalo, tarantula, armadillo or even a lowly tumbleweed.

Cameras as tiny as half an ounce are mounted on animals or plants. There's no specific length for the feature; it lasts until the camera falls off. The result is a unique perspective applauded by armchair naturalists in which the stars of the film are also the videographers.

"If people can see things from the animal and plant perspective, they are far less likely to harm them or their habitat, so that's how I present it," Easterson said.

Earlier in his career as a video artist, Easterson put small cameras in strange places -- also with the goal of getting a different perspective. He put them in popcorn poppers and washers and dryers to show what those domestic appliances looked like from the inside out.

Seeing through sheep's eyes

But equipping a small flock of sheep with cameras in 1998 changed everything for Easterson, he said. The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, commissioned him to tape some sheep as they "mowed the lawn" in a park. Easterson said he learned a lot about his new craft and the nature of animals.

"The first thing I realized was how intelligent and aware they are," he said. "The project changed everything in terms of respect.

"I was shocked to realize all the other animals in the flock could tell that this one sheep with the camera had been 'altered' in some way. She kept trying to enter, and they kept treating her as an outcast. I also learned sheep can run very fast and fences are not as sturdy as you think."

That project was called "A Sheep in Wolf's Clothing."

Keeping the cameras light

Artist Sam Easterson shows a tiny camera he attached to a desert tarantula.
Artist Sam Easterson shows a tiny camera he attached to a desert tarantula.

Easterson takes small cameras designed for law enforcement and surveillance and modifies them for the animals or plants he's aiming to study. He changes them mostly by taking most of the weight off. For most smaller animals, the video usually is beamed wirelessly for recording.

Most of his work now comes from museums, nature centers and art centers eager to give the public an animal's-eye view. The artist said he's turned down requests from some broadcasters anxious to get gritty or confrontational pictures for "reality"-type shows.

While not a scientist, Easterson works with researchers by offering details that they may have never seen.

"There really is data to see in these pictures," he said. "Take the armadillo. You can listen to its breathing patterns. You can watch closely the rotation of its ears as it encounters new things."

While networks such as Animal Planet may focus on exotic international shoots, Easterson tries to include an animal native to the area where he's presenting an exhibit. In Florida, he equipped an alligator with the cameras, and in the Southwest, he chose a desert tarantula.

A tumble weed's perspective

While it's easy to see the intrigue of animal behavior from an animal's perspective, it could be a stretch for some to consider a plant's view.

"It's maybe a funny idea to think that plants have perception, but I think they do," Easterson said.

He said his most challenging plant shoot was driving along the desert in a rental car trying to keep up with a tumbling tumbleweed.

Easterson said no animals have been hurt working as videographers. And he's worked with bioethics groups and telemetry experts who are experienced in tracking animals with radio collars.

"I really would like to be on the radar screen, to improve my techniques," he said.

In the long term, Easterson said he hopes to create a library of hundreds of animals, from the unique "first animal" perspective.

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