I have admittedly never been an animal person. I recognize that this fact about myself makes me sound like a terrible person, but I have felt this way since I was a little girl. I don’t get overly excited about puppies or kittens. I’ve never been someone that has made my way to the farm to visit baby lambs or see the new calves born. It’s just not in my DNA.
Well, karma is swift, and karma is listening. My first-born son is an absolute animal lover. He sapped all of the love for animals from my soul before he was even born. He asks constant questions about animals and bugs – questions that I have no idea how to answer. He is constantly asking me to show him videos of animals on my phone or to look up pictures of animals so that he can draw them. Thus began both of our inquiries into animals because now I can’t get a YouTube video recommendation that isn’t about them.
When my son realized that there was a place where we could go to see real live lions, tigers, and bears (oh my!) here in Idaho Falls, I think his brain flipped a switch. He was more excited about going to the zoo than anything I’ve ever encountered with this excitable boy. How could I not take him to the zoo when he was telling me it would be his happiest day on earth?
I reluctantly packed the stroller, loaded up all three of my kids in the car, and decided that I would be “Mom of the Century” by taking him to his self-proclaimed version of Disney Land. I patted myself on the back, thinking that I would meander through the zoo for an hour or so and that would be that.
Instead, we spent almost three hours at the zoo, reading information on the plaques, discussing what animals eat, where they live, how much they sleep, and all while watching that very animal in real-time. We even missed nap time.
It was the best thing we could have done.
As I watched my children look at animals they will never possibly see in their lifetime, I could see a love of wildlife develop like wildfire. It spread with each new exhibit. There was absolutely no reason for me to have brought a stroller because their excitement could not be contained. My boys were enamored.
They did not see animals in cages. They saw a lifetime of possibilities, of wonder, and of amazement at creation. My oldest son marveled at how a “real-life human being” was responsible for feeding the animals, and one of the Jr. Zoo helpers even let my son feed a duck. This small act felt close to a royal knighting for my five-year-old. He felt empowered as a helper and was eager to learn how to be more helpful. To make that even more impactful, we were there right as they started feeding some of the bigger animals. The keepers spent time telling us about them, about their diet, and how they are taken care of. They also told us about conservation efforts, and how the zoo was helping animals avoid extinction.
As an adult that isn’t an animal lover, I could not help but be inspired by the sweet story of the lion raised by a Great Pyrenees dog. I heard more about the sloth bear’s pregnancy and new baby, and I developed an appreciation for the care that these keepers give to the animals. I had no idea that if a lion cub were raised only by humans, that reuniting it with its natural parents would be unsuccessful, but the zookeepers did. One of their missions is to reintroduce animals into the wild through conservation.
My children walked away from the zoo having more love for animals and more knowledge of conservation than I had mustered in my almost 30 years of life. They walked away with empathy and love for the animals, as well as a desire to be better to the environment, to learn more, and to protect and respect animals that they might see in the wild.
I walked away feeling impressed with the zoo’s AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) accreditation, knowing that those who work with animals in the zoo were committed to high standards of research and conservation on behalf of all of the animals, as well as plants. They have been accredited for over 20 years, and during that time have made a large impact on conservation, helping to donate massive amounts of money to larger conservation efforts while also making an impact here in Idaho Falls.
I also walked away having a greater appreciation for the work of the zoo because I saw real, tangible learning taking place in my boys that day – not just connecting a name with an animal, but about extinction and their part in helping keep a safe place for animals. More than that, even I walked away feeling the civic and moral responsibility to be a better steward of the earth. To pay intentional attention to animals.
It took me seeing the magic through my children’s perspective for me to develop an appreciation for these creatures. My family is so fortunate to be able to see these animals at the zoo, to be inspired by their keepers, to know that they are working to protect animals.
I may have a future zookeeper or veterinarian in training, and as such, we have begun visiting the zoo more often. My boys remember the animal’s names, are eager to see what they are up to that day, and make predictions about where the animals might be hiding from the afternoon heat. They love to find them, and the entire day feels like magic once they spot the snow leopard.