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Animal Cyborg Peeping Toms Are the Incredible Future of Nature Documentaries

I’m sorry David Attenborough, you’ve been replaced by an electronic orangutan

A couple of weeks ago, I was looking on YouTube for videos of animals maiming each other in the testicles — as one does — when I stumbled across a series of videos that have piqued my interest ever since. The first video I found featured a robot gorilla, and since gorillas and robots are two of my favorite things, I was hooked from the start. 

The video was a segment from a nature documentary made by John Downer Productions, and in it, an animatronic baby gorilla was sent in among real gorillas to study them. Despite it’s somewhat jerky movements and its creepy camera-lens eye, the robot otherwise looked like a convincing baby gorilla and it was fascinating to watch the real gorillas interact with it. 

Curious baby gorillas showed an interest first, tapping the robot as an invitation to play, but suddenly, the fun came to an end when an adult silverback told the other gorillas to back the fuck up so he can have a look. Daddy gorilla cautiously examined the newcomer, and once the robot averted its eyes as a sign of respect, the greenlight was given and the boss decided that he wouldn’t smash the robot to bits. From there, adorable baby gorillas kept pounding their chests in an attempt to play with the robot, until one accidentally knocked him over and — possibly fearing he’d killed it — walked away sheepishly.

As a lover of nature documentaries, I couldn’t help but be enthralled. After the gorilla video, I quickly burned through a ton of videos on YouTube that featured robot spy videos of monkeys, turtles, penguins, orangutans and so much more. After that, still wanting more, I bought the first two seasons of Spy in the Wild on Amazon, which is the BBC series the clips are derived from. 

While Spy in the Wild satisfies all the cute-yet-educational requirements of the best animal docs, the perspective is something I’ve not seen before, offering a totally different, often very intimate look into these animal communities, like the close-up image of a baby penguin hatching and footage of a great turtle migration where thousands of turtles lay eggs on a beach.

In addition to the intimacy, they’ve also captured a number of sights that have rarely been seen before, like some of the maternal behaviors of bats as well as the sight of half a billion monarch butterflies awaking, as captured by a robot hummingbird. Also, on a talk show appearance, one of the documentarians explained, “One of the most amazing stories about crocodiles is that the mother goes into the nest and lifts up the babies in her mouth [but] it’s only ever been recorded in captivity. … We filmed them for the first time in the wild. The mother’s in the nest, picking them up — not only did they pick up the babies, they pick up the camera as well. We had a spy camera disguised as a baby crocodile.”

Some of the spy animals are more convincing than others. The bear, for example, looked to me like a repurposed Teddy Ruxpin, but these aren’t just Chuck E. Cheese robots that someone threw in the woods — they’re meticulously built over a series of months and sometimes years to get things just right. On that same talk show appearance, producer Rob Pilley explained, “Spy in the Wild took three years to film. Not only to film, but to try and create the ideas.” In addition to the cameras, which are often placed in the eyes of the robots, precise animatronics are used to mimic the movements of whatever creature is being imitated. “On spies with fur … a synthetic coat is punched hair-by-hair into the silicone frame,” Outside reported in an interview with the filmmakers (who were on a shoot when I reached out to them). 

The filmmakers also need the robots to smell the part, so they find creative ways to do that. With meerkats, for example, they covered the robot with poop from the colony, which allowed the robot to ingratiate itself with the fiercely territorial creatures. So successful were they that the robot meerkat was even assigned sentry duty along with some other meerkats, which is a natural behavior they exhibit to protect the colony.

As producer John Downer detailed in a behind-the-scenes video, this all began a few years ago when they were working on a penguin documentary. “Over the years [we] used technology to get more and more inside the animal world,” Downer said. This pursuit advanced through the use of more and more sophisticated remote cameras that were disguised as rocks and other things like that. “[Then] we thought, ‘What if we made a penguin cam? A living, moving camera that looked like a penguin and was able to get into the colony and get these incredible shots?’” Downer explained. The effort, of course, was a huge success and the project eventually grew into the menagerie of creatures that they have now.

It wasn’t without challenges, though. In addition to getting the technology right, the animals have sometimes interacted with the animatronics in unpredictable ways, like the tortoise cam that was crushed by an elephant, the seal cam that was bitten by a shark and a wolf pup robot that was swiftly executed by a savvy wolf. One of the best of these accidents was when a chimpanzee abducted/adopted a tortoise cam, which he proceeded to drag around by the neck, use like a pillow and violently swing around at other chimps who seemed to get too curious about it.

In a rather heartbreaking video, a spy monkey camera was adopted by a pack of langur monkeys, but when they dropped the robot to the ground, its lifeless body appeared dead. In response, the monkeys surrounded the robot and literally grieved over it, hugging and comforting each other as they observed the unmoving body.

Incredible, human-like behaviors were also captured by the robot orangutan, which observed wild orangutans stealing soap from a human encampment and then using it to clean themselves. In another video, a fully-wild female orangutan learned how to use a saw, and then competed with the robot orangutan in a sawing contest. 

Another highlight in the primate videos is the initial reactions to the robotic infiltrator. Not as easily fooled as crocodiles or turtles, the apes and monkeys often give a quick double take when the first see the oddly-moving robots, as if to say, “What the fuck is that thing?” They then proceed to examine it, but because the documentarians have made great efforts to make them appear non-threatening, the robots are often accepted into the family

The very best interaction, though, I’ve saved for last. As you may have wondered already, yes, sometimes the real animals try to fuck the robot animals, and it’s always hilarious. Take this spy tortoise for example, whose chiseled features capture the attention of an excited male, who proceeds to mount it and let out a few hilarious tortoise moans.

And this female sea turtle, who, while already being mounted by a real male turtle, tries to get it on with the robot turtle, too.

The best one though — and I’ll leave you with this — is this video that shows a male rockhopper penguin getting it on with a robot. Unfortunately, he doesn’t get far before his mate — penguins are generally monogamous — shows up and proceeds to attack the robo-penguin. 

Man, I love nature. Especially when robots are involved.