When I was a small girl of about 5, I stood outside the Ostrich Yard at the local zoo and poked my finger through the chain-link fence, awed by the huge bird blinking at me. (these were the "old days" of zoos, when one could do such things) In a flash, the ostrich pecked at my finger and I screamed. I was scooped up into the safety of my dad's arms, all the while screaming.
That is one of my earliest "animal memories." Young children learn so much from their early contact with animals, and some of these interactions can have powerful effects. I love birds and always have, and while I'm not sure this particular incident, er, hatched that love, it certainly made an impression on me. I've never forgotten it. It was the sheer intensity of that experience that made an impression. In a very startling instant, that ostrich went from being something completely disconnected from me to something that was very real, and in fact was interacting directly with me. Early animal interactions can have many "hidden" effects, many positive. Perhaps most importantly, they show children that animals are independent beings, with thoughts, feelings, and reasons all their own. They aren't playthings, displays, or inanimate objects. They're real. They do things, sometimes unexpected things.
Today at the zoo, my kids were looking at a branch covered in lemurs. Now, L in particular has never liked primates much. In fact, she's expressed an actual dislike and fear of them on more than one occasion. She prefers less human-looking animals. So I was impressed with her curiosity about the lemurs. (Lemurs are primates, although less monkey-looking than other primates)
The kids and I stood watching for a few minutes while two Red-Ruffed Lemurs groomed each other on a branch. We speculated about what they might be doing, why they'd be licking each other's faces like that. We guessed what their fur would feel like. We marveled at their long, sleek tails.
Then suddenly, the lemurs both looked at us, with their huge, pinprick eyes. They opened their sharp-toothed little mouths and emitted a shriek like someone's throat was being cut. One of them lept off the branch as it screamed.
Seized with a primal terror, both kids shook and clung to me, one on each leg. They buried their faces in my legs, howling and crying. I rubbed their heads and stood there dumbfounded. (I've never heard a lemur and wow, what a strange noise they make!)
Despite the other, cuter, more "kid-friendly" animals we saw at the zoo, the one thing the kids talked about all day long, was the noise the "monkeys" made. All the way home, despite my probing questions:
"What was your favorite animal?" "What was the best part of the day?" "What do you want to see again?"----the kids were completely stuck on the darn lemurs. The scream. The way their "eyes popped out" when they screamed. Their sharp teeth.
It is very likely that this will be one of those "early animal memories" for my kids. It was powerful, surprising, and emotionally intense. They are still talking about it.