National Zoo's 'panda cams' go dark

This screenshot was taken shortly before the shutdown. Screenshot by Amanda Kooser/CNET

Much to the dismay of panda lovers around the world, the National Zoo's panda cams are down.

"The cams (incl. the panda cams) require federal resources, especially staff, to run. They have not been deemed essential during a #shutdown," the National Zoo tweeted Monday afternoon.

The zoo is part of the Smithsonian network of museums, galleries and research facilities, which are 70 percent funded by federal money. The two panda cams are among the zoo's 15 live web cams.

Thousands of viewers log on each day to check in on female panda Mei Xiang and the cub she gave birth to on Aug. 23. At times, traffic has grown so heavy that the website had to limit viewing time.

The National Zoo is one of four zoos in the country that feature live-streaming panda cams. It's not the most exciting webcast, because pandas prefer to spend their days eating and sleeping, but that doesn't stop true fans from logging in.

"There are people that are panda lovers, so they really take an interest and want to see what they are doing. There are several hundreds who watch for hours at a time," Memphis Zoo spokeswoman Laura Doty explained to CBSNews.com. The Memphis Zoo also has a panda cam.

After the National Zoo's announcement, panda cam fans quickly took to Facebook to express their dismay. "A world without the panda cam is a world without happiness," wrote Caitlin Bauer.

"Congress, get your act together. For the love of the baby panda," pleaded Lauren Jenkins.

Among hundreds of comments about loving animals and hating politics, Facebook user Mark Haycook raised a good question: "Why would you stop the panda cam?" he asked. "It costs nothing to keep running. Typical misuse of the public trust to make a political point."

Funding does not appear to be the issue here, because the National Zoo's panda cams are sponsored by the Ford Motor Company Fund, as part of a two-year, $400,000 grant to study giant panda health. The majority of the grant covers research into disease transmission, but the cameras are factored in.

"The new system will continuously record the pandas, allowing behavior research to continue even while researchers are not physically at the David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat, and enable virtual Zoo visitors to watch live video of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian on any smart phone and tablet PC," Ford announced in a 2012 press release.

So if funding isn't the main hurdle in keeping the cameras on, it must be staff salaries. But the Zoo's cameras are operated by volunteers.

The Zoo's announcement said that the cameras were not deemed essential. Only essential staff, mostly animal caretakers and security guards, will be permitted on Zoo grounds during the shutdown. Non-essential staff are furloughed, along with volunteers.

On Facebook, users wondered if Congress fully understood the fallout of the shutdown.

"If Congress knew they were risking the shut down of the Panda Cam if a resolution wasn't passed, I think things would be moving a LOT faster!," wrote Drew Winner. "I could care less about anything else they are trying to tack on, but PLEASE don't let me suffer even one day without the Panda Cam!!!"

Winner doesn't have to stay completely in the dark. He can always watch the panda cams from Zoo Atlanta, the San Diego Zoo, and Memphis Zoo.

"This isn't really going to effect hardcore panda fans," Doty said. "The real panda lovers check them out all four cameras."

  • Danielle Elliot On Twitter» On Facebook»

    Danielle Elliot is a freelance science editor and reporter for CBS News. She holds an M.A. in science and health journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in broadcast journalism from the University of Maryland. Follow her on Twitter - @daniellelliot.

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