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Zoo webcams offer opportunities to experience a safari at home

WASHINGTON—Leading zoos nationwide are creating online safaris by turning webcams on their top attractions, including lion cubs, pandas, sharks and gorillas. The sites are a hit with kids, teachers and parents seeking rainy-day distractions for their broods.

"I've never seen 4-year-olds sit quietly for so long staring at something," said pre-K teacher Kim Lesher of Annapolis, Md., whose charges watched Sumatran tiger cubs grow up for five months at Washington's National Zoo.

From daily tiger-cam viewing, Lesher's students learned about the cubs' diet, family interactions, anatomy and growth. They drew pictures and named the cubs, too.

"Some of these kids don't see domestic animals or ever get a chance to go to the zoo," Lesher said. "This is a great way for them to get the experience in the classroom and at home."

Don't expect constant excitement, though. Lots of animals sleep most of the day. Often, they're out of camera view. And webcams have a way of breaking down.

To start your safari, try the biggest site, the National Zoo's, at http://nationalzoo.si.edu/Animals/WebCams. It features streaming webcams (which means you don't have to wait for a new image to load) that observe cheetahs, flamingos, naked mole rats, elephants, pandas and others. Unlike many sites, the National Zoo's webcams are live 24 hours a day.

Pandas, the National Zoo animals most popular with visitors, are the most popular on the Web, too. When zoo officials announced the start of the pandas' breeding season in March, panda site visits doubled in the next week from 30,000 to 68,000 visits. Zoo volunteers even adjust the cam to keep the pandas in view.

If pandas Mei Xiang and Tian Tian aren't eating bamboo or playing, they're probably catching up on sleep. That's a good time to switch to the giraffe cam because giraffes only sleep for 30 minutes each day. That fact, and lots of others about the animals on the webcams are on the zoo's site.

The San Diego Zoo (http://www.sandiegozoo.org/videos/index.html) offers four live webcams. They're on from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. PDT. Viewers normally can check in on pandas, apes, elephants and polar bears, but only the panda cam is running right now due to repairs.

For an undersea experience, try webcams at the Monterey Bay Aquarium (http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/efc/cam_menu.asp ) . Its sharks, in particular, seem to enjoy swimming near the camera. The blackfooted penguins are especially enjoyable to watch as they vie for fish meals twice daily. The aquarium's cameras operate live from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. PDT. At other times, the video plays prerecorded clips.

The Minnesota Zoo screens gibbons and sharks at http://www.mnzoo.com/animals/animal_cams/index.asp from 9:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. CDT. A dolphin born last month, is on a special webcam, http://www.mnzoo.com/guests/SpecialEvents/dolphincam.asp.

Webcams at different zoos require different software. Most sites provide a link for a free software download as well as computer specifications necessary for optimal play.

Be patient, though. High Web traffic or a weak connection can slow image loading and leave you with a blank screen for a while.

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Here are some tips for successful online safaris:

_Before you begin, be sure you've downloaded all the necessary software. Windows Media Player, Real Player and Flash Player are all useful and you can download them from links on the zoos' Web sites.

_If you have trouble with the direct links to the zoocams, try going through the zoos' home pages.

_Slow load times, blank screens and choppy images mean it'd be a good idea to try again for a better connection.

_High traffic sites (hint: pandas) mean longer waiting periods.

_Many zoo webcams offer looped videos when their live webcams are off the air.

_While most of the San Diego Zoo's webcams are offline right now, be sure to check out the zoo's huge library of prerecorded videos, which is available at the same URL.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): zoocams

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099):

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