Volume 28, Number 3 - February 1982
Zoo Behavior: Animals and Visitors
by Gary K. Clarke
ABOUT THIS ISSUE
Published by Emporia State University
Prepared and issued by The Division of Biology
Editor: Robert F. Clarke
Editorial Committee: Gilbert A. Leisman, Tom Eddy, Robert J. Boles, John Ransom
Online format by: Terri Weast
The Kansas School Naturalist is sent upon request, free of charge, to Kansas teachers, school board members and administrators, librarians, conservationists, youth leaders, and other adults interested in nature education. Back numbers are sent free as long as supply lasts, except Vol.5, No.3, Poisonous Snakes of Kansas. Copies of this issue may be obtained for 25 cents each postpaid. Send orders to The Kansas School Naturalist, Division of Biology, Emporia Kansas State College, Emporia, Kansas, 66801.
The Kansas School Naturalist is published in October, December, February, and April of each year by the Kansas State Teachers College, 1200 Commercial Street, Emporia, Kansas, 66801. Second-class postage paid at Emporia, Kansas.
"Statement required by the Act of August 12, 1970, Section 3685, Title 34, United States Code, showing Ownership, Management and Circulation." The Kansas School Naturalist is published in October, December, February, and April. Editorial Office and Publication Office at 1200 Commercial Street, Emporia, Kansas 66801. The Naturalist is edited and published by Emporia State University, Emporia, Kansas. Editor, Robert F. Clarke, Division of Biological Sciences
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gary K. Clarke has been Director of the Topeka Zoological Park since 1965, and was formerly on the staffs of the Fort Worth and Kansas City Zoos. He is a past president of the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums, and has been in the profession for 25 years.
The author would like to thank Diana Brey and Linda Wahl for their assistance in typing the manuscript.
© 1982 Gary K. Clarke
Permission is given to reprint in part for educational, non-commercial purposes; permission to reprint in whole must be granted, in writing, by the author.
Zoo Behavior: Animals and Visitors
by Gary K. Clarke, Topeka Zoological Park
A Zoo is a place devised for animals to study the habits of human beings.
-- Oliver Herford, English writer and illustrator, 1863-1935
Zoos mean different things to different people. To the family , the Zoo serves as an exciting, mutual experience. To the student, it is a source of wonder. To the tourist, a favorite attraction. To the local resident, a sense of pride. To the artist, a place of beauty. To the handicapped, a sense of acceptance -animals make no judgement, and accept everyone for just being themselves. To the mentally ill, a feeling of security -- animals ask no questions and make no demands. And to the terminal cancer patient, the Zoo can serve as a daily revival of the spirit -- a communication with life and nature. I know, because all of these things have happened at my Zoo.
Around the world there are more than 600 Zoos and Aquariums. Total attendance at these Zoos and Aquariums annually approaches 350 million visitors. We have about one-fourth of the world's Zoos and Aquariums here in the United States. Each year, one-half of our entire population (well over 100 million people) will visit these Zoos and Aquariums. That is a greater attendance than all of the major spectator sports combined. With due apologies to baseball, Zoo-going is truly America's favorite pastime.
Why is this?
I think it is because animals are a universal language and appeal to everyone, from two to 102, from grandchildren to grandparents. As life becomes more artificial and complex, mankind has more need to associate with nature . . and with living things. What better place to do this than the Zoo, especially for a family?
Zoos are an urban phenomenon. The greater the concentration of humanity, the more need for a Zoo. While most communities that have Zoos have only one, a number of the major metropolitan areas of the world have more than one -- Mexico City, Tokyo, London, Chicago, and New York City -- which has five. While we all know that Zoos exist for animals, they actually exist for people.
The relationship between animals and people is exemplified in the Zoo situation, including the misunderstanding and gross misconceptions that most people seem to have about animals -- and about Zoos. The proper understanding of animals leads to a better understanding of ourselves, and the Zoo is the ideal resource to gain this understanding. Yet, most people really don't know how to visit a Zoo.
Now wait a minute!
I would venture that most of you have probably visited a Zoo somewhere at sometime, and maybe even many Zoos on various occasions. Who am I to tell you that you don't know how to visit a Zoo?
In my 25 years in the Zoo profession, I have learned as much about people as I have about animals, or at least about people's attitudes towards animals and visitor's behavior in the Zoo. Everyday through my Zoo I see a passing parade of humanity -- people from all walks of life, every educational background, and a variety of cultures. These people walk around the Zoo, look at the animals, make such comments as, "Oh, he's ugly" or "Oh, he's pretty", then "Let's go home!" They didn't receive much out of their visit because they didn't put much into it.
If I could, I would like to take each of you that is reading this, assemble you together as a group in a large open, space, and ask the following question: How many of you have gone to your local public library and checked out just one book on your favorite animal before visiting the Zoo? I doubt that more than five percent would answer yes. This would be your first indication that you really don't know how to visit a Zoo.
So what happens when people who don't know how to visit a Zoo, visit a Zoo? Many things -- and unfortunately they are generally to the detriment of the animal, or at least the understanding of the animal in the visitor's mind.
One of the commonest hazards of the uninformed Zoo visitor is that they are subject to anthropomorphic tendencies. Now, that's not a disease, it is simply a fancy word that means people attribute human characteristics to the animal or unconsciously think of themselves in the animal's place. But you should not do this because THAT IS UNFAIR . . . TO THE ANIMAL!
Let's take some examples.
APPEARANCES. When visitors view an alligator at the Zoo, they frequently demonstrate a little shiver and say, "He is so ugly!" But he isn't, especially to another alligator. No animal is ugly. The visitor is using human standards to judge animal appearances, and again -- that is unfair to the animal.
Animals that bear a close physical resemblance to humans are generally more acceptable to people. That's one reason primates are so popular in Zoos: the eyes are on the front of the face, the ears on the side of the head, and the nose is in the middle of the face. Even the giant panda -- probably the single most popular Zoo animal in history -- displays many "human" characteristics . . . or at least people think so. But the alligator . . . ah, it has a flat heat with a long snout, and the eyes, ears, and nostrils on the top of the head -- and thus people think it is ugly. In reality, it is extremely well adapted to its aquatic environment. It can be hidden or camouflaged under water, rise to the surface with just its three major sense organs exposed (eyes, ears and nostrils) and while it is not obvious, it can see, hear, and smell to get a reading on its environment.
Back to primates for a moment. Many visitors, when viewing South American monkey species, will make the comment, "Look how sad that monkey is -- probably because he is all cooped up in the Zoo." I have had the privilege of visiting the Amazon rain forest; I have seen that same species of monkey in its natural habitat: they look the same in the wild as they do in the Zoo! It happens to be the natural expression on the monkey's face. So why do people think the monkey looks sad? Probably because they have a friend who, when sad, resembles the monkey; thus the monkey must be sad. That is a very illogical conclusion, but that's what happens when people anthropomorphize.
The point of all of this is that we should accept animals, and the way they look, and not judge them by our standards. Let's view them in the proper perspective and try to understand how their appearance enables them to survive as part of their environment.
ACTIVITIES. Now, here's a good one. It seems that when people visit the Zoo they expect every animal to be doing what they think it should be doing every time they visit the Zoo: the lion should be roaring, the elephant should be trumpeting, the sea lion should be swimming, the birds should be flying, the rattlesnake should be rattling -- it 's ridiculous.
Why is this?
I think it's because animals are generally projected to us in their most spectacular behavior: in commercials, documentary films, still photos, artwork, and a variety of other ways. Whereas much of an animal's daily activity may be in resting or sleeping, thai is usually not considered very spectacular. Thus, we get a distorted view and fall under the impression that animals are doing their most spectacular behavior most of the time, and if we go to the Zoo and they are not, then we are disappointed.
An example: visitors come to the Zoo at 3:00 in the afternoon and the African lion is asleep on the shelf. What do they say? "Look at the lazy lion." It seems to have a rather poetic ring to it, and "lazy" is the favorite descriptive adjective for lions by most Zoo visitors.
You may be familiar with the field work of George Schaller, a well known Zoologist. He has written both technical and popular articles and books, including some on the African lion. Dr. Schaller and his team of observers have watched lions in Africa around the clock -- 24 hours a day -- for weeks at a time. They observed that African lions, in their natural habitat, by their own choosing, will sleep from 18 to 20 hours everyday. So if you put that same lion in the Zoo, he is just doing his thing. He's just being a lion, and being in the Zoo has not made him any less a lion.
Yet, on TV, the lion is always chasing the zebra. Imagine, if you will, an hour-long documentary special on the life of the African lion, ad for one solid hour showed lions sleeping. Nobody would watch it, nohody would sponsor it, nobody would even film it. It may be a fact of nature, but it is not very spectacular, and our attention span (especially when watching TV) is quite short.
BEHAVIOR. This is where we need to consider the behavior of animals and people. When visitors observe animal behavior in the Zoo they frequently conclude that the behavior is a result of the captive conditions. A case in point would be a beautiful pair of Royal Bengal tigers that we formerly exhibited at the Topeka Zoo.
The exhibit consisted of a rectangular enclosure with bars in the front and back and chain link on he top. Many people would call it a "cage ." That is a four letter word that I think is most inappropriate in the Zoo situation. "Cage" is a human term and it implies wrong-doing. Our animals are not in jail, and they are not in the Zoo for punishment. The word "cage" should be replaced with another four letter word -- home, because the Zoo truly is their home, and the animals are provided with nutritional diets, adequate shelter, and companionship. The animals go through play activities, social behavior, raising their families, and maximum longevity. But back to the tigers.
All of the animals in the Zoo are on regular feeding schedules. They have built-in biological clocks and they know when mealtime is approaching (so do most people). In anticipation of their meal, this pair of Bengal tigers would frequently pace back and forth in their exhibit. Visitors would observe this behavior, but not noticing the keeper approaching with the food pans, they would frequently shake their heads and say: "Oh, those poor tigers; I bet they wish they were back in India." I don't think they did, as this, pair of tigers was born right here in the United States, and had never been to India.
Let's suppose they were back in India: they would be subject to natural disasters, diseases, parasites; they would have to protect and defend their territory at all times, they would never know where their next meal was coming from; they may even be hunted by man for their skin, or as a trophy to hang on a wall.
But in the Zoo they have comfort, security, freedom from enemies, a balanced diet, veterinary attention, and room service everyday. The fact that animals in Zoos reproduce and raise their young, the fact that they live much longer than their counterparts in the wild, indicates they are adjusted to life in the Zoo.
The key, really, to wild animals living in captivity is their acceptance of the close proximity of people. Let me illustrate with an example.
I have a color slide that I took on safari East Africa with a telephoto lens that shows two African lions feeding on a freshly killed wildebeest. When I flash this slide on the screen during a lecture the audience reaction is. "Wow, there he was in the wild, lucky enough to get this unique photograph."
My very next slide was taken from the exact same spot with a wide-angle lens. It shows the same two lions feeding on the wildebeest in the center of the picture, but it also shows that they are ringed by a dozen minibuses with over 60 people watching, pointing, talking, and photographing the lions. My tape recording of that instance is a conglomeration of sounds: minibus engines idling, people talking. cameras clicking. What I could not capture on film or tape were the various odors: gasoline engine fumes, human sweat, perfume, tobacco, and food items. These lions, despite the fact they were "in the wild -- in their natural habitat," were just as much in captivity as the lions in the Zoo due to the close proximity of people. But those lions in East Africa accept that, just as the lions in the Zoo accept it. And, as human populations continue to explode and human beings encroach on the last vestiges of wilderness areas, those wild animals that will survive will have to accept the close proximity of people.
But I would like to return to the Bengal tigers in the Zoo to prove my point one step further: that animals in Zoos are doing well, despite many peoples' anthropomorphic interpretations. We had all of our big cats on managed breeding programs, and in 1967 this pair of tigers started producing cubs. Adult breeding animals were placed together after the first of each year, so that litters would be delivered in the spring, the youngsters would be on exhibit during summer, and old enough to be transported to a new home in another Zoo in the fall. Although a female big cat could produce up to three litters a year, we thought one litter a year was adequate. This allowed the mother animals to gestate for three months, lactate for three months, and rest for six months. It was a very workable management plan.
Breeding dates would be observed and recorded, gestation periods calculated, and delivery dates anticipated with regularity. Generally, the regular keepers would simply observe through the back den door to see how the mother was doing and how many youngsters she had. Very seldom would any of the big cats need assistance in delivering their young. In the case of these Bengal tigers, the female generally had two or three cubs per litter.
In 1970 a very unique situation developed. The day of delivery arrived and the keeper came up to my office a little after 8:00 a.m. and reported that the female tiger had started her delivery. Later he reported back that she had had her second cub, and by noon her third cub. Everything was routine at this point.
A little while later he came up and reported that she had had four cubs this time. While that was a first for us, it had happened in other Zoos. But, by the end of the day he came back and said, "You know, she has had five cubs in this litter." I rushed out to the exhibit and peeked in through the den to make sure that he had not counted some of them twice -- sure enough, five cubs. I then rushed back to my office and checked the International Zoo Yearbook (annual published by the Zoological Society of London), inventories and annual reports of other Zoos, and any other Zoological literature I had. At that time I could only find one other Zoo in the world in which a female tiger had delivered a litter of five cubs, and that was a Zoo in Sweden. But, they do many sexy things over there, so I am not sure that it counts.
The next year rolled around and we wondered whether or not she would repeat this performance. The day of delivery arrived, the keeper came up and reported: she's had her first cub . . . her second cub . . . her third . . . fourth . . . fifth! Five cubs again, two years in a row! Not only did she have them but she raised them!
If a female tiger in the wild were to deliver a litter of five cubs, the runts of the litter would probably perish. The mother would be out finding food, protecting territory, and watching for enemies. The stronger cubs would compete for adequate nourishment, and the weaker cubs would die. In anticipation of this in the Zoo situation, we had infant isolettes warmed up and our substitute formulas ready. Each day we checked for the first runt, but there was none. All five cubs were fat and sassy.
The next year we wondered, would she -- could she -- do this again? If so, that would be fifteen cubs in three years' time on a once a year breeding program -- a most unique situation. There was great anticipation around the Zoo, and all the staff were taking bets with each other: "Oh, I bet she does; no, I don't think she can," and so on.
The long-awaited day of delivery arrived. The keeper came up and reported: "She's had her first cub . . . her second . . . her third . . . her fourth . . . she did not have five cubs that year. She had SIX!
Not only did she have them, she raised them. And not only did she raise them, but we were able to let the father tiger back in with the mother and cubs. Here was this 450 pound male Bengal tiger, sitting in the middle of the exhibit, while the cubs would climb upon his head, chew on his ears, slide down his back, chase his tail . . . it was a truly glorious sight.
So now we had this entire family of eight Bengal tigers all living together in a 12' X 24' barred exhibit that most people called a "cage." And, yes, visitors would shake their heads and say, "Oh, those poor tigers; they're all cooped up; they have taken their freedom away; they were so unhappy." But our tigers did not know they were supposed to be unhappy, and they were perfectly content with their environment, and even accepted the close proximity of the visitors who made the anthropomorphic comments.
This pair of Bengal tigers produced nearly three dozen cubs, many of which were sent to Zoos across the nation and around the world. I still have people now and then who say to me, "Why do you take animals out of the jungle and put them in Zoos; why don't you just leave them in the jungle?" The tiger cubs born to this pair were fourth generation Zoo-born tigers; they had not been taken out of the jungle. Then some people say that if they are fourth generation captive born, they are not really tigers. That is like saying that if a human being was born in a hospital instead of on the farm he's not really a person. It doesn't work that way. Believe me, these cubs were 110% tiger.
I think the misconception occurs when people see captive animals that are "tame." I am not sure that any wild animal is ever truly tame, but if a human hand raises a wild animal from birth, they frequently are able to maintain close physical contact with that animal, at least until sexual maturity. This holds true with an animal born either in the Zoo or in the wild. On the other hand a young animal raised by its mother (either in the Zoo or in the wild) generally does not relate on a close basis to physical contact with people. So the key is not whether the animal was born in the Zoo or in the wild; the key is whether the animal is raised by a human or raised by its mother.
Before we leave tiger, let us look as what has happened to those Bengal tigers that have been "left in the jungle." In 1939, there were 40,000 Bengal tigers in India. Today, there are less than 1,500. Just in my lifetime alone, Bengal tigers in the wild bave shrunk literally to the point of no return. There are more tigers alive and well in the Zoos of the world today than exist in their native habitat. This is a sad reflection on the status of our natural world. It also places an awesome responsibility on the Zoos of the world, as we end up with the last viable genetic stock for the future survival of this species.
Animal behavior is probably the most misunderstood and misinterpreted aspect of animals. This is partly the result of some people unintentionally misrepresenting animal behavior to other people. We, as people, seem to be extremely gullible and are willing to believe just about anything without question. In fact, the more unbelievable it is the more we seem to have a tendency to believe it.
The point is that we frequently misinterpret animal behavior, and we are sometimes misled by our fellow human beings. One of the most important values of a Zoo is that you can depend on reliable information to learn the facts about animals. And in most cases, truth is stranger than fiction. In fact, the animal world is so fascinating just as it is that it really is unnecessary for us to perpetuate snake charming behavior and other false myths.
It seems that we generally cannot accept animals as they are for just being themselves. We always have to assign roles to them: animals are either good or bad, nice or mean, heroes or villains, positive or negative. Again, this is the image that is projected to us, particularly in our society, from childhood. And one of the worst offenders is the cartoon.
Cartoons are supposed to be funny -- right? But not today. Watch young children as they watch cartoons. There is a very strong emotional involvement, and a deep identification with the cartoon character.
Cartoons are not the only offenders on film. Even some of the best "true life nature series" films are guilty. When they show swans flying across the giant screen, what is the music in the background? It is harp music exuding goodness, beauty, and acceptance. Yet, when they show a boa constrictor sliding down a tree, what is the music? It is the bad guys music, the "deee -- duhhh," the same music they play when the villain sneaks around the Long Branch Saloon to shoot Marshall Dillon in the back. The narrator doesn't have to say in words that swans are good and snakes are bad -- you are told by the music. The next time you view an animal film, close your eyes and you will be able to tell who is supposed to be good and who is supposed to be bad by simply listening to the music.
Over the years I have had the opportunity to explain much of the preceding material to a wide variety of people. Generally these people indicate that the information helps them better understand and appreciate wild animals. This is gratifying to me.
However, now and then someone will say: "Well, I know that animals in Zoos are probably better off than their counterparts in the wild. I know they have security, I know they live longer, and they don't have to escape enemies and find food and protect territories each day. But, if all of these things are taken care of, then what DO they do all day? Don 't they get bored?
That is a good question, and all conscientious Zoo professionals strive to provide occupational activities for their animals. In newer facilities, the exhibit design itself frequently incorporates activities for the animals: pools, rocks, trees, high places, and social perches. Some exhibits are completely naturalistic, such as the Tropical Rain Forest at the World Famous Topeka Zoo, which provides a waterfall, live plants, and large trees, and a variety of natural materials. When real materials are impractical, Zoos incorporate artificial ones fabricated our of fiberglass, plastic, concrete and so on.
In older facilities animals are provided with things to keep them busy: specialized apparatus for primates to climb on; pieces of dried beef-hide for big cats to chew on; logs and stumps for bears to wrestle with and push into the pool; and the traditional rubber tire which is used as a toy by a wide variety of animals. Eating is another activity, and some animals spend a good portion of their time in feeding behavior. Companionship is important, and most Zoos strive to establish pairs, trios, or social groups of a given species. Sometimes several different species are maintained in the same exhibit, which provides for even more behavioral interaction.
Animals in Zoos are on routines, or daily schedules. Their exhibit is cleaned at a certain time everyday, they are fed at a certain time, they go to the outside exhibit and come back in at a designated time. This is good, as they know what to expect and they frequently anticipate the next activity on their daily schedule. It also corresponds to their life in the wild, as animals are cyclic creatures and depend on light cycles, temperature cycles, breeding cycles, etc.
For most animals, life in nature follows a schedule or routine, and we try to approximate that as much as we can in the Zoo setting. Some animals are on natural light cycles with skylights provided in their housing. Some animals day/night cycles are reversed with automatic timers. Even temperature cycles are incorporated in Zoo exhibits with the temperature being warmer during the day and cooler at night, just as in nature.
But with all of this, there is something more. I have watched animals in Zoos for a quarter of a century, not only in my Zoo, but virtually every Zoo in the United States and many around the world. And I have come to the conclusion that many Zoo animals share one common, major occupational activity -- and that is -- watching the people! They not only watch people, but they seem to learn more about people than people learn about them . . . and they learn faster.
I see this happen in many Zoos on a regular basis, but particularly with our adult Polar bears in Topeka. We have a beautiful pair of Polar bears that live in older, but adequate facilities that have bars on the front with the guard rail a mere six feet from the exhibit. There is a pool at each end of the exhibit, and the pools are heavily used by the bears during warm weather.
On a hot summer afternoon a large crowd will gather in front of the Polar bears. While one stands to its full height on its hind legs and scratches its back on the front of the bars, the other one will mosey to the back of the pool, hang over the edge momentarily, and then jump in and splash water all over everybody. The crowd moves back in waves, laughing and yelling at each other. Most people wipe themselves off while looking embarrassingly at their neighbors. After a moment they all move back up to the guard rail and the Polar bear jumps in and splashes them again. It takes some people three, or four, or five, times to learn that if they stay in that spot they are going to get wet! But the Polar bear knows they will come back for more, and so is ready and waiting to do it again. It sometimes makes you wonder who's the more intelligent species in the Zoo.
Do you know that you sometimes act like a giraffe? And other times like an elephant? Do you know why? It has to do with the principle of contact versus non-contact species. Let's start with giraffes.
Giraffes are basically a non-contact species. This means that generally they do not go around touching each other except for specific reasons: during courtship, during dominance battles between males, or in the mother/young relationship. Otherwise, they literally keep their distance. Even though they are a social herd animal, you can observe (both in the wild and in the Zoo) that giraffes generally maintain a minimum distance between each other. It is much like people who step into a crowded elevator, and all scrunch their shoulders together so they don't touch their neighbor. In our society we generally don't go around touching other people unless they are relatives or close friends. What happens when we unintentionally make physical contact, like bumping into someone? Right away we are apologetic with , "Oh, excuse me, " or "I am sorry. " So, in some regards, our behavior parallels that of a giraffe.
How can we put this knowledge to use in the Zoo situation? We start with the very design of the facilities. The Topeka Zoo is a good example. The indoor exhibit for the giraffes contains three separate stalls. In the summer, we simply turn the giraffes into the outside yard while we clean the inside stalls. But in the winter we will transfer the giraffes to two of the three stalls while we clean the third stall, then shift part of them over while we clean the first stall. In other words, we are not in wiyh the giraffes while cleaning their facilities. This gets back to the principle of not making direct physical contact with the giraffes. We don't touch them or brush them, even though their appearance is always neat and clean. In essence, what we try to do is adjust ourselves to their social behavior so that we are accepted by them on their terms. Granted, we don't look right and we don't smell right and our necks are short, and we don't have spots, but generally the giraffes accept us as some funny kind of giraffe, and thus we develop a close working rapport.
Rather than try to make the giraffes think they are people, we try to make the giraffes think we are one of them.
In direct contrast to the giraffe, the elephant is a contact animal in every respect. They touch each other, rub agaiust each other, push each other -- all the time. If one of our elephants in the Topeka Zoo lies down to take a nap, the other is usually beside or even standing over her, making contact. And again, we take this social behavior into consideration from the design of the facilities to the daily management practices with the animals.
Our elephant exhibit consists of one large stall, plus all outdoor yard for use in good weather. In both cases, however, the keepers have to go in with the animals and work in direct contact with them. In fact, every time the keeper needs to clean, or feed, or do anything with the elephants, he or she intentionally makes direct contact. Our management practices include giving the elephants a bath every morning with a high-pressure, over-sized water line. Twice each day we conduct a training session in which the elephants obey a series of voice commands. During these sessions, the keepers pat the elephants, sit on the elephants, and even ride them. Thus, we are adapting ourselves as people to following the social rules of elephants. Elephants are extremely intelligent social creatures who relish direct contact on a daily basis.
And, a with the giraffe , the elephants accept us on their terms. We don't look right, we don't smell right, and our nose is short, but -- we do enough things right to be accepted as a strange kind of elephant. In the Topeka Zoo, it is interesting that the same keepers take care of both the elephants and the giraffes, and during the course of the day these individuals are switching social roles and following the behavioral rules of two different species in opposite ways.
I have mentioned that it is important, to accept animals on their terms. It is just as important for us, as people, to establish situations in which the animals can accept us on their terms. It seems that we violate this rule wilh regularity. I see it happen all the time in contact areas or petting Zoos.
Frequently a parent will take a child into the contact area to associate with goats and sheep, sometimes young deer, maybe even a baby llama. The parent will push the child towards the animal and sometimes even take the child's hand and force it to pet the animals, all the while saying to the youngster, "Have fun."
The experience for the child may be just the opposite. Rather than having fun, the child is often frightened. And the parent is fostering absolutely the wrong approach for developing rapport with animals. From the animal's point of view, the humans are making all of the advances, dictating the actions, and setting the tone for a negative relationship. Granted, some individual animals (especially domestic species) learn to tolerate people's misbehavior, particularly if they are subjected to it over a period of time. But let's consider a more rational approach to the situation, particularly from the animal's point of view.
If you plan to visit a contact area or petting zoo, wear some old clothes, not your Sunday best. This way you can actually have contact with the animals and not worry about your clothing. After you enter the area, don't run after the animals to initiate contact; don't thrust your hand toward the animal; in fact don't even look at the animal. Ignore the animal and try to act as unconcerned and routine as you can.
I would suggest that you sit down with your back to the fence and patiently let some time pass. Let the animal accept your presence and observe that you are passive. Continue to wait until the animal feels safe enough to approach you. When it does, continue to ignore it. Let the animal come close enough to look you over, to smell you, possibly nuzzle against you, maybe even stick its nose in your ear.
Then you might slowly and deliberately move your arm away from your body with your hand extended but not pointed at the animal. If the animal accepts this, you might nonchalantly touch the animal, not with your finger tips, but with the back of your hand. If the animal jumps or flinches, slowly withdraw your hand and wait for an opportunity to repeat the process. If the animal accepts your touch, you may gently rub it on its side or back. Try to touch it where it will not feel threatened. Eventually, you can work your way to the animal's neck and maybe even under its chin. Be careful of the eyes, nose, and ears. These are sensitive organs. At this point, you might be able to give the animal a sideway glance, but be careful, as direct eye contact or a stare can be threatening to many animals.
To develop a close rapport with a given animal, you need to gain its trust and make it feel secure with your presence. Generally this cannot be accomplished during a five-minute visit once or twice a year to a petting Zoo. And while most animals in contact areas are accustomed to people violating all the rules, you might still try the above procedure, as I believe some animals will recognize your patience and understanding, and reward you with their confidence.
Some time ago, an out-of-town school teacher brought her group of third graders to the Zoo. She did not want one of our Docent tours, or any Zoo literature, but wanted to explain the animals to the class herself. She was doing fine until she arrived at the Australian area (across from the bears), and started to tell about kangaroos.
About this time (as occasionally happens when you have third graders at the Zoo), a pair of red kangaroos started breeding. Naturally the children were very curious, started asking questions, and wanted to know what the animals were doing. Instead of referring to our Zoo Guidebook or the illustrated graphic explaining kangaroo behavior, the teacher became flustered and avoided the issue by saying, "Oh, goodness children, I don't know what they're doing; I think they're just fighting. Let's go look at the bears." One of our keepers happened to be close by and said, "That won't do any good, lady, because the bears are fighting too."
Now you can see what the students were deprived of when the teacher did not explain kangaroo reproduction. Some people may feel that children in the first, second, or third grades are "too young," but I disagree. Children are born turned on to life and to nature. And it seems that every chance we have we try to tum them off, by not answering questions or avoiding the issue. I think it is important for children to learn about animals truthfully. I have explained kangaroo reproduction to young children and even shown them color slides of a baby kangaroo in the pouch. This has meaning and significance to the youngsters. I recall one instance when I was in the grocery store and a second grade student recognized me, rushed over, grabbed my hand, looked up, and said, "I remember how a baby kangaroo is born!"
These children are eager to learn, hungry for knowledge, thirsty for the truth -- yet what do they learn about animals? If you watch some of the cartoon characters on TV, you see Magilla Gorilla, Peter Potomus, Yogi Bear -- animals wearing neckties, driving cars, talking like people. That's not a true representation of animals, and children gain a gross misconception. Why make animals something they are not, when in reality they are far more fascinating just being themselves? What could be more marvelous than the miracle of kangaroo birth?
In summary, I think it is terribly important for us as people to accept animals on their terms for just being themselves, and to utilize the Zoo as a resource in helping us understand and appreciate animals.
Animals are fascinating, wonderful creatures. And with all due respect to books and motion pictures, the animal itself is the greatest teacher in the world. The next time you visit the Zoo, turn yourself into a sponge and soak up all the knowledge that is readily available and come away over-flowing with new information.
The Zoo is unique because it is real. The animals are not on film or the printed page, they are not cartoon characters or advertising gimmicks; they are themselves, alive in all their glory.
It is up to all of us to help save today's animals from following many other species into the absolute, irreversible emptiness of extinction.
But what a Zoo is really all about, was probably best summed up by a seven-year-old visitor to the Topeka Zoo who said, "Animals are my friends."
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|College of Liberal Arts & Sciences|
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|Emporia State University|