Last week, I had the pleasure of going to Washington for a handful of book events. The book events only took up about an hour and a half per day, and I spent the rest of my time wandering and pondering and enjoying being away from home.
One place I went over the course of my wanderings was the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. I've been thinking a lot about education—the teachings we communicate intentionally and directly ("a triangle has three sides!") and the ones we communicate indirectly and often accidentally ("success means knowing how many sides a triangle has!") Over the past few years, I've become particularly interested in the indirect messages we teach kids about nature. The zoo is a great place to watch this direct/indirect split in action, as parents are constantly aiming to educate their kids in words, while communicating a second set of unspoken messages with their behavior.
Parents take their kids to the zoo to teach them about animals, but they end up teaching them an entire orientation towards life.
With that in mind, here are some of the indirect messages I picked up while standing by the tiger pen:
"Animals are fun."
In general, people go to the zoo for entertainment—not for religious purposes, or to hunt the elk, or because the only way to get to their grandmother's house is to walk straight through the tiger pen. We go because it's fun, or because we want it to be fun, and feel anxious when the animals are not acting as fun as we need them to be.
An almost universal reaction to the tiger amongst toddlers and young children when coming upon a sleeping tiger in the tiger pen was to tap on the glass and sing "Wake up, tiger, wake up!" And even though the adults were too well-behaved to do the same, one could sense they shared the children's desire for the tiger to get up and dance, or at least to move around—make it fun.
Watching this interaction repeat itself over and over again, it struck me that the modern urban human's behavior around a tiger is almost the exact opposite of how humans would have acted around tigers throughout most of our history and pre-history. A child from a rural village, encountering a sleeping tiger on her way to get a jar of water, would almost certainly do everything she could to pass undetected and make sure the tiger stayed asleep. A modern, urban child does everything she can to make the sleeping tiger notice her, entertain her, giver her some sign of her specialness—wake up, tiger, wake up.
"One minute is a good amount of time to look at something."
The average time that any given party stayed to observe the tigers was one minute. After the one minute mark, most parents would begin to herd the children on to the next exhibit whether or not the children seemed bored with the tiger.
In the thirty minutes I was watching, not a single party stayed longer than two minutes. I got the sense, from watching the adults, that they deemed it right and proper and somehow responsible to move on after a minute or two—as if to stay longer would be awkward, creepy, or otherwise suspect.
I found this pattern especially interesting. We feel anxious if we observe any one animal at length, when there are still ninety-nine more exhibits to see—and to spend an entire morning watching only the tiger would be an act of blasphemy, of not-getting-one's-money's-worth of the worst degree. We're driven by a need to check every box, even if we'd be happier checking only one or two. We skim instead of reading deeply. We don't know how to observe animals at length, nor do we have any practical reason to do so—and so we move on, baffled and more bored than we care to admit, to see if the next one will be any more amazing.
"Learning about animals means learning to name and count them."
Many of the parents at the zoo seemed keen on stimulating their child's verbal and math skills, prompting them to repeat the names of the animals, or to see how many they could count—not how to track them, hunt them, cook them, pray to them, or interpret their behavior. In short, not how to have any sort of meaningful and necessary interaction with them. It struck me, as I watched this name-and-count pattern repeat itself again and again, that the children might as well have been counting Tupperware.
Indeed, the entire message of the zoo seems to be that animals are very wacky and fun to watch and it is so very sad that they are disappearing, but at the end of the day, they have no relevance to our "real" lives—neither as a threat, nor a food source, nor a source of the divine or mundane information necessary to organizing our days. At best, they are a vehicle we can use to learn about counting or colors or some other "educational" subject, but we could just as easily be counting something else.
"The interesting animals are the ones in the cages."
...Not the native squirrels, crows, hummingbirds, racoons, snakes, and possums that roam, scurry, and flap freely throughout the zoo grounds and which nobody has bothered to put in an enclosure.
"It is sad that animals are going extinct (but not sad enough to depave the parking lot.)"
The zoo is full of placards informing guests of the tiger's dire situation and suggesting we can help by changing which brand of cookies we buy (a table staffed by zoo volunteers displayed a range of Nabisco products, the company having signed some kind of rainforest pledge.) The message is that there is nothing we can do directly to help wildlife; we can and should continue to live as before, while mitigating our guilt by buying slightly different things.
I'm no psychologist, but I wonder what effect this kind of splitting has on children's emotions—I wonder what kind of effect it had on my emotions: to invoke a terrible, sad, guilty thing like extinction, get people feeling awful, and then offer impotent and abstract "solutions" (buy Nabisco!) while continuing to perpetuate the very thing (the economy, the culture, the disconnect) that is contributing to mass extinction in the first place.
How much healthier, saner, and more empowered would we be if there was a zoo volunteer standing next to that extinction placard handing out pickaxes so that kids and their parents could break up the concrete together? Instead, the adults at the zoo seem weak and ineffective, unable to do much in this world except buy popsicles and take pictures and possibly donate a dollar or two to the save-the-tiger fund. Nothing heroic. Nothing that inspires confidence or awe. What does it mean that most kids never see their parents making any serious attempt to address the most pressing crises of our time? That even earnest attempts to make things better often take the indirect forms of clicking or writing or buying, and only rarely of doing something physical—building, planting, fighting, slogging through mud.
"Being kind to animals means not tapping on the glass (let's not talk about whether it's kind to put them behind glass in the first place)"
Another way to state this: 'The problems with the way our culture deals with the wild are too large to tackle; therefore, let's just do our best to be as 'nice' as we can to animals within the absurd and insane constraints we've imposed upon them.'
As above: what does this kind of splitting do to a kid's psychology? What does it say about good and evil when the adults in your world bulldoze a creature's habitat and lock it in a pen, then inform you that you are being "bad" when you try to speak with it the only way you know how?
This is not a problem exclusive to zoos, of course; zoos are just a convenient microcosm. But the questions they raise are universal: What does it mean to be kind within a profoundly unkind, unjust, and evil system? Why doesn't the zoo have a special pen with an ethics committee inside who can answer these kinds of questions?
With so much that is confusing and contradictory in the messages we send kids about nature, the question remains: is there a better way to go to the zoo?
If there is, I imagine it would mostly consist of hanging out in the small patch of forest near the zoo parking lot, eating blackberries and picking mushrooms, watching the squirrels to see where they nest, checking to see if the saplings we planted last year have grown. Taking naps, building forts, and peeing on the ground. Smelling things and chewing them, getting bored and un-bored, learning to "do nothing" without feeling anxious about it. Learning, in short, to be sane.
I would like to be sane in the way I just described. I can imagine what it would be like. But it takes practice, and a long, slow undoing of the many assumptions, pressures, and anxieties our culture puts on us. Why am I typing up these mind-words instead of sitting outside in the rain? I don't know; I am trying to figure it out. What I can say for certain is this: while I am glad to have seen a tiger, I am gladder when I visit the giant oak tree that grows near my house, or when I go to watch birds by the river. The thing we need to feel and respond to is right here, wherever we are, not in a zoo or on another continent. And maybe the beginnings of answers are to be found there too.