Thursday, April 8, 2010

a captive audience

When I told the kids we were going to the Nature Center last week, they wanted to know if it was the one "where the snake lives"--we've visited this particular nature center many, many times and there is indeed a very large fox snake living there in a huge tank. Despite the perfect weather, as soon as we got to the nature center, the kids rushed straight inside.

They stood in awe as the snake lay there. They looked at it, watched it "crawl" up the sides of the tank.

The Nature Center director saw their interest and got the snake out so the kids could touch it. They each stuck out a tiny, tentative finger and stroked the snake's back gently. Neither child said a word, they just stood there, "petting" the snake for a few minutes, until the director had to move on to more pressing tasks. They silently watched her put the snake back into it's cage and then we went outside to play. They spent the afternoon "looking for snakes" in the leaves and stick piles.

For days afterward, they made snakes out of everything: scarves, spaghetti, and even blocks. There is a poster of snakes on J's wall and the kids traced the ribbony bodies each night with their fingers before going to bed.

Those of you who remember my old blog may recall this post I did after a trip to the zoo. I've made no secret of my misgivings about captive animals, particularly those in zoos: it seems they often lead depressing, incomplete lives and I find it really sad to encounter them.Then again, contact with "real live animals" can be literally life-changing for some people. It was for me. This is an issue I've had to sort out over the years, and my perspective has changed since I had kids. Funny how that works.

Also,I've spent many years working in nature centers myself, tending to all manner of captive animals: snakes, salamanders, turtles, even the occasional bird of prey. I've seen time and time again how direct contact with a "wild" animal can ignite something in a child: a curiosity and zeal for learning. A newfound interest in that animal. A collapse of fear about that animal, or others like it. Even, of course, a sense of connection.

Many nature center and even zoo animals are "non-releasable" for a number of reasons which could include permanent injury, physiological differences from native populations, too much time in captivity, etc. so-- is a life in a small, cramped cage better than death? Is it worth it to "sacrifice" one animal (by keeping it in captivity) if it serves as an ambassador of sorts, opening the minds of children and adults alike? What effect does it have on you or your kids to see captive animals? How do you feel about it?

These are really, really difficult questions.

I've arrived at my own conclusions. What are yours?


  1. I'm comfortable with animals in captivity with certain boundaries and limitations. I've been to zoos overseas where animals were doing obsessive loops, around and around their cages/enclosures, touching the same spot on the wall each time around, and that was pretty disturbing. If they're more well-cared-for, however (allowed adequate mental and physical exercise, etc.), I think it can have an overall beneficial effect for just the reasons you stated.

  2. Thanks for the comment on my blog!

    I am deeply bothered by caged animals, yet I cherish every memory of childhood trips to the zoo, and trips to the zoo with my own children. We don't keep pets in our home (for a number of reasons, much to my children's dismay), but when they catch a bug or spider or frog or salamander, I try to balance my concern for the creature's well-being with a desire to not squelch my children's natural curiosity about the natural world.