Seven-year-old Nicolas Barlow picked up the remote control before his twin brother, Lucas, could reach it and quickly figured out how to make “Spy Egret” bob its head.
“Hey, I made the mouth move!” he said, his fingers fiddling with the dials.
After a few seconds he was smiling, humming and making the animatronic bird dance. Spy Egret is a model of its wild counterparts, a white feathered bird with a long beak, but with one notable difference: Its right eye is a camera.
The bird was one of four animals on display Sunday at JH Wild’s Science Fest, a series of booths and stations for kids to explore inside the Center for the Arts. The event occurred a day after the public screening of “Spy in the Wild,” a “Nature” miniseries documenting live animals interacting with one another and, occasionally, their animatronic twins.
The series’ producers and cameramen were in town to show clips from the series and present their “spy creatures” at the 2017 Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival.
The hairy and fuzzy spy creatures appeared onstage Friday evening with John Downer, owner of John Downer Productions, and his team: producer Matthew Gordon, and Huw Williams, a specialist camera operator who controlled some of the animal robots during filming.
They fielded questions from adults inquiring about the most interesting thing seen on film — langur monkeys grieving the apparent “death” of Spy Langur, Gordon said — and kids speaking softly into a mic asking, “Um, can they breathe?”
Alas, they cannot, but some are designed to look as though they can, Downer explained. Many can display subtle and significant facial expressions (one can mimic 32 expressions), and a few, like Spy Peccary, can walk. There are 34 creatures in total, and more are in the works for a continuation of the series.
While live animals often seem to be able to tell a spy creature is just that, Downer said, “there is a respect for them.”
“It’s been very strange, and thankfully it happened we haven’t had any destroyed, even with the most dangerous animals,” Downer said to the Friday night crowd.
The oldest spy creature, approximately 5 years old, is Spy Adelie, a penguin that captured a scene of a bird losing his mate to a stronger, more aggressive male during breeding season. Other spies have captured the hatching of crocodile babies, the grieving of giraffes and the competitive spirit of orangutans.
While the spies are simply placed in nature to observe — they’re not officially connected to any research — producers said the most valuable feedback has been capturing empathy from the animals for their spy counterparts, and empathy viewers have for animals on screen.
“We love laughter. Laughter shows you are empathizing with the animals,” Downer said. “You’re not laughing at them, you’re laughing as yourself, seeing through them.”
The creatures made an appearance on a little stage Saturday, sitting atop a tabletop in the Center’s foyer, waiting for children to come and play with them.
“The reaction from the children has been really positive,” Williams said. “The orangutan goes down as a favorite.”
Spy Orangutan, modeled after a life-size female, is a favorite of her keepers as well, being the only creature bestowed a name: “Birute,” after Dr. Birute Mary Galdikas, a primatologist whose life’s work has been dedicated to studying the mammals. Galdikas was also with the film crew when Spy Orangutan went into the wild to interact with live primates, Williams said.
Birute is a little more difficult to control, requiring two handlers to move the robot. Young festival goers were instead directed to Spy Bushbaby, Spy Egret or Spy Peccary, a pig that, if controlled right, can cut a rug.
“It’s a dancing pig!” Nicolas exclaimed as the robot’s little hooves tapped on the table.
Learn more about the spy creatures at TinyURL.com/spycreatures.