Animals in Education: Why Do We Pet Turtles But Not Possums?

Do you work with live animals at your site? Does your site have rules about how you use these animals in your interpretive programs that sometimes make sense and sometimes don’t?

I have worked for 15+ years at a nature center in western Kentucky that has over 40 captive wild animals on exhibit. These animals have been either injured or orphaned and imprinted, and are considered “permanently non-releasable.”

Some of the biggest questions you have to deal with when you have live animals at your site are how you want the public to be able to interact with them. Can they pet them? And if so, which ones? Can they feed them? Do they have names?

At my nature center, we let visitors touch many of our snakes and turtles. But visitors can not touch our other wildlife, such as our larger birds and mammals. We also tell visitors that we don’t name the animals because they’re not pets. The lesson is supposed to be that wild animals are not pets and therefore don’t have “pet names.” These animals are wild and so should not be treated like pets.

When I was younger and just getting started in this field, I pretty much parroted these lines. But the older I get, the more I seem to question the logic. For example, why is it okay to pet a turtle but not a deer? Is the turtle somehow less “wild”? Is the deer more? Would naming our coyote really make someone more likely to try to keep one as a pet? Maybe, I just don’t know.

Obviously, some animals should not be touched because there is a safety issue – no one wants to see a visitor get hurt. But what about the value of giving people the experience of an up-close connection with an animal? The main reason that we let people touch snakes is the hope that an up-close experience will lead to less fear and more appreciation of these often-misunderstood creatures. Why does this logic seem to stop with reptiles? Would it be terrible to let visitors touch an opossum, another often-disliked animal?

Currently, we have a deer at our nature center that is very people-friendly. She comes right up to people and sniffs at their hands. Even though we have signs saying “Please don’t pet the deer,” it is way too tempting, and people pet her all the time when our staff aren’t watching. So far no one has been bitten, but many have been awestruck. Is this bad? I don’t know.

More and more, it seems like people in general are having less experiences with wildlife in their regular lives. But there is a hunger for it out there. People are watching animal YouTube videos like crazy, watching animal shows on TV, following bird nest web cams. But real experiences with real animals? Those seem to be few and far between.

In interpretation, we often say that we need to get people to feel a connection with something if we want to motivate them to protect it. If this is true, maybe getting people to feel a connection with animals is a goal we should think more about. It sounds so simple, but many of our rules often work contrary to this.

I’m not sure this is right, it’s just a question I’ve been pondering lately. What is the harm in letting a child pet a deer if it is a safe situation? Or an opossum? Do we lose something if we let kids call a coyote “Campbell”? Or do we create something? Which is the bigger issue, getting people to think of wild animals as wild, or getting people to feel a connection with them in the first place?

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