SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — It's South Lake Tahoe's very own reality TV show. There are five rowdy cubs in the bear den, a pint-sized celebrity named Chips in the bobcat area, and a group of playful raccoons who like the night life.
A high-tech idea that started in 2008 finally became a reality about two weeks ago when the Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care facility began streaming nine live video feeds directly to its website.
Now, anyone interested in watching an osprey test its wings or a baby bobcat recover can tune in on the LTWC website to watch video from nine cameras set up in various cages throughout the wildlife rehabilitation facility.
According to LTWC Treasurer and Secretary Tom Millham, he bought the organization's first webcam when Li'l Smokey, a black bear cub severely burned in the 2008 Shasta fires, came to the facility.
They could only afford the one camera since it cost $1,500 a year to run the feed on the website, and they moved the lens daily to follow the celebrity bear cub from pen to pen.
“Wherever Smokey was, the camera was. People wanted to see him. People would send in remedies for burns and they would come up to us saying where we could put him,” Millham said.
Li'l Smokey became something of a national celebrity, with his name scattered across headlines in media outlets such as NBC, CBS and the San Francisco Chronicle. The live footage of the little bear was very popular, Millham said.
LTWC had other internal surveillance cameras at the time, all of which were routed to a TV monitor Millham still refers to as “Bear TV.” The set-up allowed Millham and his wife Cheryl to watch the animals and learn from them, but that access was limited to the screen in the LTWC building.
“I asked if we could take the internal surveillance cameras and hook them up to the internet, but no one had an answer for me,” Tom Millham said.
When Bruce Richards arrived at the facility for a volunteer recruitment session, he offered to try and provide that answer. Millham remembers Richards saying he had some computer experience.
It took about two months and a $1,500 computer system donation from Richards and his wife, Adele, but the retired director of research and development at Hewlett-Packard managed to devise a system to get the nine cameras to stream online.
“Second to Caltrans, he's got the most webcams operating of any other organization in California,” Richards said.
Before the cameras went live, the LTWC website garnered about 10 viewers per day. That number has since swelled to about 1,000.
“I'm very happy with the result. It's great to see Tom's vision come to life. For me, the best part is getting people to realize all the work they're doing at LTWC,” Richards said.
To view the webcams, check out the LTWC website at www.ltwc.org.