The Real Cost of "Virtual" Nature

It should come as a surprise to absolutely no one that children today spend far more time engaged in electronic media than experiencing nature. (With the average American child "plugged in" for six hours each day, how much time could possibly be left for outdoor play?) What is stunning, however, is that absolutely anybody thinks this is a good thing.

Welcome to L.A., where animal activists advocate replacing zoo elephants with robotic replicas -- and argue that these Dumbo-droids will have the same educational and inspirational impact as the real deal.


In August, PETA announced its desire to buy Sea World and replace Shamu and friends with "virtual marine mammals," and now similar groups are proposing that the Los Angeles Zoo's partially constructed Asian elephant habitat be scrapped and replaced with an animatronic display or IMAX film. I have no doubt that children can be entertained by a herd of electronic elephants or a school of simulated swordfish. But seeing such creatures would likely inspire fascination with the robotic technology, rather than curiosity about, or compassion for, the animals themselves.

So far Anheuser-Busch, owner of Sea World, hasn't taken PETA up on their offer to digitize Shamu, but in L.A., at least one member of City Council is trumpeting the virtues of virtual technology.

"Kids are a lot more advanced now than they were when we were growing up," Councilwoman Jan Perry said in December, addressing the issue of whether elephants should remain at the L.A. Zoo. "They watch Animal Planet, they look on the Internet, they do live feeds in their classroom ... they have access to experiences that we may not have had when we were growing up, and they seem perfectly comfortable with it, in a way that maybe we don't understand. So maybe we need to listen to them, too."

With all due respect to Councilwoman Perry, the fact that our children seem "perfectly comfortable" with the gradual replacement of nature with virtual reality is not a good thing.

In his bestselling book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv cites numerous studies documenting children's declining participation in outdoor activities and the resultant rise in obesity, depression, anxiety, and learning deficits. The need to nurture kids' connection to nature is most acute in urban settings, where parental fears of strangers and traffic pose major obstacles to outdoor play.

Admittedly, a zoo visit won't achieve the same level of impact as an African safari, but for the vast majority of us, viewing elephants and other exotic animals in their ever-shrinking native habitat is not possible. That's where accredited zoos and aquariums serve a vital role, providing a window on the larger world, a bridge between youth and nature, a safe and accessible way for children to see the wonders of the animal kingdom with their own eyes.

Like most busy parents, I'm guilty of relying too heavily at times on technology to entertain and educate my kids. After all, it's easier to pop in a DVD about whales than to take them whale-watching, and far more convenient to show them online images of the Grand Canyon than to plan and execute an actual road trip. But I strive to ensure that such virtual explorations remain an adjunct to, rather than a replacement for, actual outdoor experiences. No DVD or video game or webcam can hold a candle to Mother Nature -- in all her three-dimensional glory -- in terms of emotional and educational impact.

The argument that artificial animals can have the same impact as real ones is refuted by a 2007 study in the Journal of Developmental Processes, which investigated the costs and benefits of "virtual nature," defined as "nature experienced vicariously through electronic means." The authors found that accessing virtual nature "appears to reduce direct contact with nature," whereas in-person experiences are vitally important to both child development and conservation:

If children experience Old Faithful primarily through a webcam, where is the nurturing connection that in the past was provided by the sharing the experience with family or an adult mentor? ... From a conservation context, will they still go to see it in real life? Will they still pay their tax dollars to maintain Yellowstone?

The more kids "experience" the wonders of the natural world via virtual channels, the more they'll take it for granted. As successive generations become progressively more disconnected to nature, who will notice when it disappears? Who will care?

Some argue that children don't need to see animals in the flesh in order to care about them. But even the staunchest critics of zoos can likely trace their own love of animals to a personal interaction with a live creature, rather than a transformational moment sitting at a computer terminal. I cannot fathom the next generation of Jane Goodalls and Ian Douglas-Hamiltons crediting CGI chimpanzees or animatronic elephants with fanning the flames of their environmental action.

Louv quotes environmentalist Robert Kennedy Jr., a champion of ocean preservation, who said: "It's the oceans, not the Internet." What will inspire L.A.'s young people to became stewards of their environment and to work toward the conservation of wildlife and wild places? To paraphrase Kennedy, "it's the elephants, not the Internet."