Wild Animal Encounters

“OMG! SeaWorld Dolphin Bites Girl!” Okay, I added the OMG, but you can imagine the collective “gasp” when the news recently made headlines. Videos were quickly posted on YouTube.  The parents were alarmed and shocked. How could a seemingly safe opportunity at the Orlando theme park have such an unfortunate outcome?  Will the parents sue? No, they just want to warn other parents so that this doesn’t happen again. While the eight-year-old was fine, receiving only small puncture wounds, she had forgotten the rules. She picked up the empty fish tray that the dolphin then mistook as food. A few days after the incident an Orlando Sentinel columnist posted this headline  “Dolphin bites girl – no surprise.” Finally, a voice of reason to put things in perspective – “when you mix people and animals – especially animals that don’t naturally consort with people – things like this will happen.”

I see this same dynamic play out in national parks. Visitors are either terrified wanting to know if there are snakes, spiders, or mountain lions. Or they want to pet the deer, feed the squirrels, or get close to the bison. There is a major disconnect with visitors that they are in a natural setting, not a theme park. They seem to have little or no understanding of wild animals and their survival behaviors.  Visitors want to see animals in their natural environment, but they somehow expect the experience to be served up in a way that eliminates any danger or inconvenience on their part.

As interpreters, we all struggle with this – how to debunk the scary myths and yet instill a healthy respect for wildlife? Our animal programs do need to include natural history information in a fun and interesting format while at the same time inserting safety and conservation messages. But perhaps programs should also focus on just what it means to be wild and how our interactions with these animals affect their natural behaviors. Maybe our program objectives should include teaching wildlife observation skills. And perhaps visitors should have a “healthy” fear of wildlife? Maybe visitors should leave our programs excited about just the prospect of catching a glimpse of a wild animal, but if not, then just enjoying the search. And being glad that the animals are still here, not to entertain us, but just to be. While it would be sad if future generations did not have the opportunity to see a bear (or other species) in the wild, wouldn’t it be more sad if in preserving these animals, they lost their “wildness?”

And yes, I have visited the aforementioned theme park, but I don’t feed or pet the animals. Strangely, I go for the incredible opportunity to view wildlife that I may never get to see otherwise. Wouldn’t it be great if all visitors came to marvel at just seeing these amazing creatures while at the same time respecting their natural wildness?

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