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In an effort trying to preserve the imperialist zoological gaze, BBC opened an “online zoo” in September 2009.  I actually found out about this via PETA’s blog, where the author described it as “the zoo of the future.”  The “zoo”

The endangered Litoria Sauroni amphibian found by BBC wildlife team inside the extinct Mount Bosavi volcano in Papua New Guinea. Photograph: Ulla Lohmann/BBC

is actually an online video gallery of animals from all over the world, all animals belonging to groups who are endangered of extinction.  It’s unfortunate that both PETA and BBC use the term “zoo” to describe this project, thereby retaining the notion of zoo in society as acceptable.  I just wish radical positive change in our relationship with other animals would actually happen.  An idealist wish, yes, but not impossible.

One of the main justifications for the zoo to exist today is for children to develop understandings of wild animals.  Parents take their kids to the zoo to learn about animals and develop some appreciation for nature.  What children miss out in the zoo industrial complex are the sense of place, relationship-building, and ecological identity that come with knowing wild animals, endangered or not.

It’s not difficult for a child to be open.  The child’s open curiosity is the starting place for developing a sense of reverence and respect for others.  Parents can nurture this open-hearted curiosity that’s already present in children without the supposed need of supporting zoos, aquariums, and theme parks.  Visit farm sanctuaries, volunteer at humane shelters, camp in nature reserves and public natural areas, follow bird migrations in wildlife refuges, or just be in a city park.  Learning about other animals’ lives and building relationships should be holistic and place-based–not as looking at specimens in a museum archive.

Fortunately, you don’t have to be financially well-off to do this.  In fact, I’m speaking with low-income urban families in mind.  For instance, my partner and I live in a low-income neighborhood in Charlotte.  Within a few miles of our apartment is a city-managed park that contains a boardwalk stretching through riparian woodland and wetland.   In a span of four hours of visiting the park, we witnessed a diverse array of animals just being (a doe and her son browsing, several blue-gray gnatcatchers and eastern phoebes in conversation, a long black and graceful snake on the hunt, orange and black-spotted butterflies eating dog poop,  a convoy of black ants with striped abdomens, blue-tailed salamanders taking cover, a chorus of frogs, and so many more).

THREE RULES OF THUMB WHEN VISITING A NATURAL AREA

  1. If you don’t live in the park or don’t frequent the park, then you’re a visitor and should behave as such.  That means, leave no trace.
  2. Take your time when venturing into the area.  The longer you take, the better in order to take time long enough to be with individual animals you may come across so that they may accept you as a fellow creature of the area. You’ll know the acceptance when you experience it, whether you’re being investigated or being ignored.  (This may be difficult for children in the beginning who have a low attention span.)
  3. Silence is key.  This includes external dialogue and internal monologue.  Quiet your voice and your mind and encourage your child to do so as well.  You want to be present in the area for as long as you can, to experience animals as they are without imposing your worldview.

Just within that small space in a sprawled out city, we gained the experience of wild animals in their daily lives, living autonomous yet interconnected with each other.  However, our experience of so many wild animals in one place is not standard and situations vary.  It depends on the time of year (summer is the most active time).  It depends on the weather (we were at the park during light refreshing rain with a slight breeze).  It depends on the human traffic in that particular place and how noisy and disruptive it is (we were the only humans walking on the path for the most part).  Most of all, to experience wild animals as they are, you need to practice silence, patience, and open-heartedness—all virtues worthy for a young child to develop.

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