Just before 1 on a recent Friday afternoon, SuzAnne Miller sits in a shed at Dunrovin Ranch and calls Kristol Stenstrom, a certified veterinary acupuncturist who lives in Kansas, to talk about Flash, a 14-year-old Tennessee Walking Horse who apparently has nerve damage in his left front leg. With the help of a tech-savvy employee, Miller routes the call through a computer, puts in earbuds attached to a cellphone, walks outside to a waiting Flash and talks to Stenstrom about whether acupuncture could help the horse recover. Meanwhile, people sitting at computers all over the world watch the consultation via a nearby web cam, listen in on Miller’s and Stenstrom’s conversation and discuss what’s happening in an online chat room.
This web session is all part of Dunrovin’s recently launched “cyber ranch,” a subscription-based website that allows remote viewers to observe and participate in the real and staged operations of the Lolo guest ranch. Miller is counting on the model, which combines the intrigue of reality TV with the wholesome tranquility of rural life, to help Dunrovin recover from lingering wounds—and deep financial losses—incurred during a year-and-a-half fight with the county over how the guest ranch should be legally classified. If the model doesn’t take off, however, the ranch may have to shut its doors.
“To really be a full-fledged, quality site, I need about 6,000 subscribers,” Miller says. “That should not be hard to do. And by the fall, I need 2,000 to give me enough money just to continue.”
Currently, the cyber ranch, which is located at daysofdunrovin.com, has approximately 415 members, who pay between $4 and $10 a month. For this fee, subscribers can watch and comment as employees make their daily rounds and as scheduled sessions of everything from yoga to dog training to horseback archery take place. Some members, Miller says, even watch the ranch’s sunsets from their urban apartments.
According to a survey Miller conducted, some 90 percent of the site’s users are female and most are either retired or around retirement age. Though Miller plans to target this demographic as she tries to build membership, she has expansive visions of connecting all kinds of people in a large and participatory online community.
“Initially, you think ‘cyber ranch’ and ‘cyber connection with animals,’ and it’s just not at all meaningful,” Miller says while a live-cast of nesting osprey shows on her computer screen. “What we have here are real birds doing real things. This is reality TV that’s real.”