The therapeutic power of animals is just a click away, discovers Kim Knight.
It's a jungle out there. Also a tundra, a savannah and a watering hole somewhere in Botswana.
Around the world, zoos and wildlife parks are promoting live webcams as a way to visit when the gates are shut. Don't have a cat to cuddle? Somewhere near you is a caged tiger-rhino-naked mole rat just waiting for your wireless code.
The irony of a locked-down humans watching locked-up lions et al cannot be underestimated but last week I spent 30 minutes spying on a San Diego polar bear enclosure and it was almost as soothing as icecream.
I clicked on the live camera feed because I had already cleaned my kitchen 47 times and the tiny replica beach I am building on my berm, using locally sourced and hand-ground asphalt road chips is almost complete. I clicked because I was a bit bored. Also, according to the experts, hanging out with animals is an excellent alternative to screaming into the void (or at your bubble).
Froma Walsh, writing in the academic journal Family Process, cites study after study showing the health benefits of animals - from stroking a dog to reduce blood pressure, to watching fish in a tank as an effective pathway to a meditative state. How important is a companion animal in a crisis? During the Great Depression and World War II, American president Franklin D. Roosevelt's most constant sidekick was, apparently, a Scottish terrier. Walsh writes that "bonds with companion animals may not be our whole lives - but they can make our lives whole".
There has been plenty of evidence for that since the world started self-isolating. From the blanket coverage of the Welsh town taken over by a herd of goats, to the social media success of BBC sports broadcaster Andrew Cotter's commentary of his labrador dogs licking their bowls clean ("Olive - focused, relentless, tasting ABSOLUTELY NOTHING"), we can not get enough animal-related distraction.
I emailed Cotter and asked why he thought his video clip of family pets Olive and Mabel had gone viral (eight million views and counting).
"I have always loved dogs," the Scottish commentator replied. "They are therapy at the best of times anyway, but really come into their own during these, some of the worst times we have known. The beauty of them is that they have no idea what is going on and just act as they always have. So they are a little bit of normality wandering around your house during very abnormal days."
Cotter believes the video struck a chord ("every morning I still wake up to so many messages from all corners of the world") because, "It's just a bit of a silly diversion from everything that is rather more serious and probably quite a psychological strain at the moment."
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Plus, he says, it shows how much people are missing sport.
"You see how much we need something which we always took for granted. Events this year which I would have been covering include the Six Nations, Masters golf, Wimbledon, the Olympics. They've all either been postponed or will be cancelled. I know I'm going to miss doing those events as much as people enjoy watching them, so until then it will just have to be commentary on dogs. Which is no bad thing ... "
According to archaeologists, humans and animals have lived together for at least 14,000 years, when there is evidence wolves were domesticated. Some 9000 years ago, early farmers are believed to have used dogs for herding and cats to keep rodents from grain crops. Today, we rely on cats and dogs for a different kind of support.
In the days leading up to New Zealand's coronavirus lockdown, the SPCA reported three times its normal animal adoption and fostering rates. Cats and dogs distract and comfort us. Online, as those who can log on to work from their kitchen tables and couches, furry friends are increasingly credited as "co-workers" (sample dialogue: "I just had to tell my co-worker to stop licking my cheese" and "my co-worker spends a lot of time rolling around on the floor").
I wish I had a dog. Instead, I'm checking in on a polar bear who lives 10,000 miles away. And breeeathe. Every so often, the bear lifts a lazy paw or nuzzles a bleached bone deer antler. There is no deer attached to the antler and this is momentarily worrying - but then: Breeeathe. I cross to the live baboon cam. They sit with their backs to me, like so many sleek-haired tussocks. Their long fur is shiny and artfully striated; a multiplicity of Jennifer Aniston haircuts as viewed from behind. I am reminded that I missed my last hair appointment, have not shaved my legs in 10 days or tinted my eyebrows in 20. On another camera, the penguins are meeting in a far more orderly fashion than any Zoom sessions I have attended this week. The humans are wrecks but the animals don't care.
That's the whole point. The ethos of the St John outreach therapy pets programme, for example, is that animals don't judge or criticise. They treat everybody equally. They aren't shocked by human ailments, frailties, handicaps and confusion. They can reduce the stress and fears associated with illness or old age. They offer unconditional love and friendship.
Roanne Heppel-Pukehika is a qualified vet nurse, St John volunteer and a team leader for the South Otago pet therapy programme, co-ordinating 13 volunteers and 14 dogs who make regular visits to rest homes, schools, libraries and hospitals. Her dog, Cull, is a 13-year-old huntaway cross who used to work with her possuming husband.
"He's a big fluffy boy," says Heppel-Pukehika. "And he is absolutely the best therapy pet ever."
She likens these animals to the humans we describe as "people persons" - empathetic, caring and comfortable with company.
"They just open up so many conversations. Just about everybody has had a pet at some stage, a little cat, a rabbit, a guinea pig, a dog, a horse - it connects us all. Look at what's going on right now, and the photos of dogs and cats and pets flooding social media, because everybody's sick of hearing bad news. Pets make us happy.
"They don't care if you're in a wheelchair or if you've had a stroke and can't talk properly, they're just happy to see you. It's an amazing feeling to see them connect with people."
Cull, and other therapy pets across the country, are on an enforced break right now. Experts have advised pets need to remain within their family bubbles, maintaining a 2m distance from other people while on walks and avoiding pats from strangers. Owners should wash their hands frequently.
"But I sent a photo to one of the rest homes he normally visits to say 'Cull's checking up on you'," says Heppel-Pukehika. "We're conditioned to like something cute, it releases endorphins, it gives us a little happy thrill."
She says her own, self-isolating son recently reinforced the positive power of animals, texting to say he had just adopted four ducks that had landed on his lawn.
"This situation is affecting everybody in strange ways!"
It turns out that even if you can't physically pat a pet, just the sight of an animal can be calming.
Dr Sarah Thomas, Auckland Zoo's head of conservation advocacy and engagement, says the zoo is investigating whether it can set up live webcams at the Western Springs site that is home to 138 different species and 4000 creatures - but there are challenges.
"We have kea on site, for example, and they are very inquisitive. I think if you put anything in there, they might want to interact with the camera a bit more than we'd probably like! At the other end of the spectrum, we have beautiful Archey's frogs and if you put a livestream on them, maybe they won't move all day ... "
Recent Facebook-hosted video feeds of the zoo's otters have been extremely successful. I sat, watching the comments flood in - viewers reported the experience was "so relaxing" and "the best afternoon tea break entertainment ever".
Thomas says people have been contacting the Zoo to specifically ask how their favourite animals are faring in lockdown and a new online hub had been developed.
"Photos, videos, talking points ... getting people to feel connected, even though they may be self-isolating and staying at home, it's bringing that humour and a positive frame of mind to our audiences."
Back at my laptop, I think my polar bear may be waking up. It lifts its head slowly. It lowers its head slowly. I could go for a walk but I am sitting here watching a slightly blurry white bear breathe and wondering about time differences between here and a webcam trained on a watering hole in Botswana. Why?
Thomas diagnoses "biophilia" - a term coined by researchers in the 1980s to describe the human tendency to want to affiliate and interact closely with other forms of nature.
"A lot of the research talks about that kind of psychological, physiological response that we have when we see animals, when we're in nature ... our stress is reduced, our cognitive function increases and enhances our mood and creativity, says Thomas.
"This current situation is interesting because as a nation, as New Zealanders, we're very used to going out into nature and being able to access it quite readily. Now we're in a new context ... the polar bear is your access to nature, so you're probably more aware of how that makes you feel.
"Something amazing happens when we're in nature and we're connected to animals. It has a really profound effect on us. So I think when we're in a slightly contained situation in our bubble for the next few weeks, that's why things like the zoo, things like online streaming are so important to keep us in that space - connected to nature and valuing nature."
New Zealand's largest public institutions are responding to the Covid 19 lockdown with new online content. Organisations are adding activities daily. At the time of going to press, those highlighting the natural world included:
Auckland Zoo - an online hub with regular video content, keeper cams, backyard treasure hunts and yoga sessions.
Te Papa and the "Little Page of Calm" - featuring a New Zealand bird quiz, online jigsaw puzzles and a pre-recorded sunrise.
Auckland Museum at Home - go inside a whale, watch a video about volcanoes and take an interactive quiz on marine biology.