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When to Roar: Teaching Kids About Wildlife

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by Brooke Faulkner

It’s time to have “the talk” with your kid. It might be tricky. You don’t want him to feel like he’s done anything wrong, but his behavior makes it very clear that it’s time.

Oh no, not that talk.

I’m talking about the other animal conversation: the “you can’t pull the cat’s tail” and the “don’t walk up to strange dogs and try to hug them” talk.

It’s time to teach the kid about wildness

My town is known for mountain lions. They wander down from the foothills, the curious young ones usually, and find themselves in a totally new world with different customs and social hierarchy. They don’t realize it of course. Mountain lions are shy, sensitive creatures. The generally only get aggressive if they’re hunting, if their chase instincts are triggered, or if they feel cornered.

In a human encounter with a mountain lion, a person’s physical reaction can dictate the outcome of the encounter. The best tactic to fend off attack is to make it clear you are not prey. Do not run. Instead, make yourself big, yell, and throw stones to frighten it off.

If you act like a victim, they’re going to prey upon you.
-NPS backcountry ranger

Mountain lions have somewhat predictable behaviors. When hunting, they will go for the easiest prey, i.e., the smallest deer or person in a group. In California, a mountain lion attacked a 6-year-old boy hiking with a party of ten adults. The boy was only 10 feet ahead of the group. The adults were able to scare off the cougar and the boy survived the attack.

When hiking in the wilderness, kids simply do not have the size to scare off a predator. They should always stay with their parents. Running even 10 feet ahead on the trail separates them from their protectors and may make them appear like prey.

Adults should always be first on the trail. If you see a wild animal, immediately scoop up small children and hold them in your arms.

Training children to understand and respect wilderness can start at home. If they understand the wild streak in the family housecat, they will be better equipped to understand the behaviors of wild animals like cougars, bears, wolves, and other predators they might encounter in their lives.

Respect boundaries and habitats

The first lesson to teach a child about wild animals is that they are highly protective of their space.

Disturbing an animal’s den or territory can trigger its protective instincts, especially if there are young involved. It’s in a kid’s nature to be inquisitive and curious, but it’s important to develop healthy respect as well.

Being in the wilderness is like being in someone else’s home, explains my aunt, a veteran backcountry ranger for the National Park Service. It wouldn’t be cool to find your kid rooting around in a neighbor’s closet, just as it’s not ok for them to poke around in an animal’s home.

The wilderness is not ours. Both children and adults need to remember that. We are visitors.

Kids are naturally curious about animals. Other living beings are fascinating and awesome, and kids should be encouraged to learn about them. For very young children who might not be ready to venture into the woods and explore on their own, visiting animals in captivity can be a way to introduce them to the concept of wildness.

It’s important to only support zoos that treat their animals with respect and provide the habitats they require. The San Diego Zoo, for example, has over 4,000 animals on 100 acres and is known as one of the most humane zoos in the US. We want our kids to see happy koalas munching away at eucalyptus just like they would in the wild, not a depressed and lonely koala pinned up in a cage.

Understand animal behavior

Whether in captivity or in the wild, part of teaching a child to respect wildlife is teaching her about animal behavior. Knowledge is power.

Kids need to understand that animals process the world around them differently than we do — they’re mainly concerned with food, safety, and breeding, and we do not want to get in their way.

Understanding animal behavior can help older kids and adults gauge the seriousness of a situation and decide how to react. If a girl is walking down the trail and she comes across a buck violently scraping his antlers against a tree trunk, she might feel a little unnerved. It could easily appear like aggressive behavior. But, if she knows that tree rubbing is just a natural way that deer shed antler velvet, she can appreciate the moment and proceed cautiously down the trail, giving the deer both privacy and a wide berth.

Use fear about animals constructively

Having a certain amount of fear of wild animals is perfectly healthy. It’s certainly better than being cavalier. But we want our children to channel their fear in a useful way.

Fear does not mean deference; it means respect.

My aunt has worked as a backcountry ranger for over 20 years. She counsels visitors on a daily basis how to behave around wild animals. When I asked her about how a person should behave in the wilderness she had this piece of advice:

Behave like you’re in a city you don’t know. Deal with wildlife how you would deal with strangers.

Be calm, confident, and don’t act like a victim. Keep your head up.

Imagine you’re in a new city walking down the sidewalk. Naturally you stand up taller, you look around, you take it all in. You’re hyper aware of the world around you.

We humans have animal instincts too. It’s important to let them do their thing. Honor them.

With all of our gear and technology, it’s easy for humans to fall into a false sense of security and stop paying attention to our surroundings.

Bear bells — once thought to be the answer to all our bear-surprising woes — might actually do hikers more harm than good. At worst, some backcountry experts surmise that the bells could actually attract curious bears. At best, they’re loud in the ear of the backpacker and inaudible to the bear. Either way, overreliance on any tool can lull people into a false sense of security, a dangerous attitude when exploring unknown territories.

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Teaching children about wildness early on will help them throughout their lives. Understanding how to behave around wild animals helps kids learn to trust their instincts, respect the environment, and be confident in the face of the unknown.

It’s more than just preparation for a possible animal encounter one day. It’s about being a more rounded human.

 brooke-faulknerBrooke Faulkner is a freelance writer and momma in Portland, OR. She is a justice advocate and a lover of words, furry animals, and furry words. 

 

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