Keeping it Close to Home

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This weekend, my sister and I brought Bess and Harry to Washington, DC for the Green Festival. While we were there, we planned to visit the National Zoo.

As a humane educator, I am ambivalent about zoos in general. I think that by bringing our children to visit animals in captivity, we are implicitly giving them the message that we approve of the practice of catching animals and putting them in enclosures for people's viewing pleasure. However, my sister, a zoologist and educator who has worked at one of the most well-known and well-respected zoos in the world, argues that without zoos, some animals would likely become extinct. Furthermore, she argues, giving people the chance to see these animals live increases the likelihood that they will make efforts to save them. I'm still not sure what I think about that, so my compromise has been to carefully select the zoos that we do visit, and to be sure to talk to my daughter about where these animals actually belong and how they might feel about being away from their homes.

Now, back to the story. The National Zoo has an impressive array of animals on display. We didn't get to see much because by the time we got there, Bess was quite overstimulated and exhausted. We did get to see their famous panda, and we walked through the bird house that contained some really interesting specimens including kookaburras, birds of paradise, and kiwi. But all Bess wanted to see were the mallard ducks in the pond outside and the squirrels playing in the trees.

In fact, that whole day, while we walked through the city, Bess was fascinated not by the new sights and sounds around her, but by the flowers in front of the buildings and the house sparrows and starlings sitting on the statues. She wanted to pick dandelions and look at the leaves, and feel the textures of the different types of pavement while we walked. She was duly unimpressed by the sightseeing, preferring to focus on the things that were no different from that which she sees every day at home.

I think that if we are going to effectively teach our children to be responsible citizens and stewards, we need to always make the effort to meet them where they are instead of trying to advance our own ideas of what they "should" be exposed to or care about. Bess is three - too young to be able to appreciate the panda we saw, and the struggles of wild pandas trying to survive in a faraway land. She is focused on her immediate environment, and attached to the familiar. As humane parents, we are best off trying to cultivate the attachment that already exists rather than trying to expand their horizons before they're ready.

In the end, the whole DC trip was probably a bad idea. It was too much, too far, too different for anyone to be able to enjoy it. It will probably, unfortunately, be a few years before I'm able to attend another Green Festival. But I'll have to take a page from Bess, and instead focus on examining and enjoying the things I have in my own backyard.