This article was first published on 5/28/2017. Stayed tuned for the upcoming interview with The Wildcat Sanctuary.
Have you ever asked children where exotic animals live? Lions, Tigers, Giraffe, Elephants, Polar Bears…. What was their response?
During the first days teaching a new group of children, this question always occurs and the answer usually is “In a zoo”!
I remember hearing this for the first time and being shocked. They had no idea these animals were wild, that they lived in different parts of the world and not behind bars, or in cages but in the wilderness, away from humans. To say this was upsetting would be an understatement.
Yet, how would children know where a Tiger originally came from if all she/he saw was one in a zoo, of course it makes sense.
What doesn’t make sense is that the child was not told the truth. Tigers don’t live in zoos, they don’t belong there, they never were born to be raised in a zoo. They are wild animals meant to live free, in the wild.
Now how am I supposed to tell my 3 year old where Tigers came from? How am I supposed to explain that Elephants, Zebras, Bears, live in the wild and not behind bars? Why explain at all? The animal is being cared for and we get to see creatures we would never see because we don’t live in: Africa, Asia, South America… There’s nothing wrong with them living in zoos, they’ll probably live longer here than if they were in the wild. Yes, I can hear you now! Please hear me…they exist in captivity, there is no life. Not a life these beings should have had were it not for the greed of humans.
This is why we need to explain. Letting children think this is ok leads to the acceptance of caged life for these beauties. And while there are some zoos that do care for these creatures, there are more that don’t. Behind “closed doors” these animals may have no natural materials in their enclosures. Some may never have set foot on real grass or soil. Some may never see the light of day. And some are starving to death.
There are facilities that are only in this for the money, not for education or the rescuing of wildlife. There’s big bucks in the animal trade and purchase. Tens of thousands of dollars. Capture a Tiger cub, rip it from its Mother and you can make a fortune through cub petting, circus acts, pay to play gigs and so on.
But they’re only animals, right? Exactly. And so are we! I always tell people, imagine yourself living behind bars for decades simply because of who you are. Sounds like jail, except you didn’t commit a crime. Well, neither did these creatures.
On the flip side, there is the belief that zoos are helping to educate. That if these animals weren’t in zoos, we would never see them in the wild. Take the Addax for example, last year there were only 3 left in the wild! 3! Why? Take a guess.
If you visit zoos, ask questions. Where did the animal come from? Did they purchase it as a baby? Was it because of their demand that it was torn from its home and family? Did you pay for it? Trade it with one of your animals? There are ways to ensure the safety and well-being of wildlife living in captivity. If your questions are evaded or ignored, the staff more than likely have something to hide. If someone ever says the animals like their small enclosures/are happy with performing…they are not telling the truth!
Most often if an animal has lived in captivity its entire life, it will never be able to be released into the wild. Never. It would have no hunting/foraging skills. It wouldn’t be able to defend itself if met with another of its species. It wouldn’t fit in with a pride/pack, etc. It would most likely live alone and starve.
So, do you educate your children about life in captivity? Yes. Be honest. Depending on their age will determine the direction and extent of your explanation. I tell my pre-school children that mean people take the animal from their homes and aren’t nice. When asked why, I again explain that these people aren’t nice. Go from there. Older ages can understand more, but keep it simple. These types of conversation often lead into climate change, pollution, and more endangered species talks. It is up to the next generation to fix the problems that ours and previous generations have all but destroyed.
This is only the beginning of this conversation. Wildlife is as important as our life. We are all connected, regardless of whether we can see it or not.
We are all Mother Nature’s Heroes, all deserving of life, together.