When We Grow Up… Educating Children About Endangered Species
San Antonio, TX
Many do not expect to see a child speaking, but that is exactly why I do. To share a kid’s perspective on the issue of educating kids about endangered species and wildlife in general.
I read a paper published last year about educating children about endangered species that saddened and worried me. The author suggested that children should not be educated about endangered species because it’s scary for us and because she felt that we don’t really “get it”. I can’t agree.
I am not a doctor and I did not go to college and study how kids think, but I am a kid and I play with them at recess every day and they are in my scout group and on my soccer and swim teams.
I say that children DO get it. We do understand loss and we understand the permanence of extinction. Not only that, but some of us realize that we are the ones who have to live the longest with the decisions that are being made right now regarding nature. The scary part isn’t what you tell us, it’s what you don’t tell us.
I think that we are an important part of species survival. We are part of the answer. But we need to know the truth about endangered species if we are going to find solutions to problems.
What kids know and how they learn
A. It is true that we kids learn by helping nature:
Helping nature through projects teaches us that we can be part of the answer. We can plant trees and adopt animals at the zoo and do recycling projects and learn lots of things and this is how most grownups teach us. You help us to build birdhouses, bat houses and pine cone bird feeders all the time. These things are great and I support these projects. But building bird houses is only part of learning. We can’t stop there when it comes to experiencing nature and helping wildlife.
B. We learn best by experiencing nature in our hearts.
This is where our natural education usually takes a detour. We kids need to touch, smell, feel and cry on behalf of nature. Yes cry. Please don’t protect us from this. Conservation is a matter of the heart. It is more than knowing the science; it is something that comes in a language that has no words. At SeaWorld, we quote an African Naturalist who once said, “For in the end, we will conserve only what we love, we love only what we understand, and we understand only what we have been taught”. Sometimes we kids are taught best by seeing stuff through the wild eyes of the animal world and making a connection as humans.
Ever since I was really young I have had a deep passion for animals. Right after I turned 5, I started working with a raptor rehabilitation center. During the three years that I studied and worked there, I did just about everything involved in raptor work. With my mentor, I helped with hawk rescues, eagle transports, rehabilitation of injured animals, diagnosis of birds and even postings (autopsies) of the unfortunate ones that did not make it. Just about every weekend we did educational raptor demonstrations for schools and the public.
I remember one day at the bird facility; we had to post 3 birds that were brought into the center already dead. You have to check them and find out why they died because raptors are an indicator species and that’s one way we find out what’s going on in the environment. We had a hawk that flew into a cactus and I found the spines stuck in its organs. We had a Sharp Shinned hawk that got hit by a car and it died instantly. And we got this really pretty Barred Owl (Strix varia). It was so beautiful I couldn’t even tell it was dead until I realized its body was limp.
Have you ever looked into the spirit-less eyes of a Barred Owl who was instantly killed by flying into the glass window of a house that had just been built right in the middle of its habitat? I have and I was only 6.
I remember the day we cut that bird open to perform its posting like it was yesterday. I remember it so well because that’s the day I made a big connection. I knew that I had to help save habitats. I knew that if I loved that Barred Owl as much as I thought I did, then I knew that I had to care about where it lives. You don’t have to be a grownup to know that there is something wrong when a perfect bird dies like that.
In a moment that seemed like an eternity, human population and habitat destruction and urban sprawl became a very real problem to me. I was almost 6. It didn’t scare me. It motivated me. We kids do get it but you have to give us a chance to see the truth.
Experience on a heart level not just building a birdhouse, but really getting our hands dirty and getting close to the problem, empassions us kids. That’s how we learn what the real problems are for wildlife. For some of us, that’s how we begin to think of ways to solve the problems we will face in the future.
I know that there are rules about kids and animals. We aren’t allowed to do and touch a lot of stuff (and I don’t always agree with that) but I have always been lucky enough to have mentors who found a way to get me close enough to feel nature in my own heart. And that is when I feel my future and the future of this earth. People who do this for kids are our best teachers.
We kids can put ourselves in animals’ place and see through their eyes. Maybe it’s a little scary and it’s very sad, but without knowing what it’s like to be the animals, we’ll never grow up to care enough about solving the problems they face. And we all know that their problems will eventually become our problems. That’s why experiencing nature is so important.
In the movie “Spiderman,” Peter Parker let a robber run past him and get away down the elevator. Later on, that robber killed Peter’s uncle. When Peter realized that his apathy ended up killing his uncle, Peter got this look of determination in his eyes. That was the very moment that shaped his future. Wildlife needs super-hero kids who are motivated by truth, not protected from it.
Ready? Get set… Go where?
If you are going to see kids someday fix the problems that endangered species face, then we need to be prepared.
I am the only one here who can say this from my side of time: When I grow up, I want to be prepared for my own future. I want to know how much work is ahead of me. My future and every kid’s future are linked to nature. It’s our quality of life. It’s our link to God. We are impoverished without nature. There isn’t enough time in one day to explain all the reasons for why we need animals and why kids should begin thinking about these things now.
To tell the truth or not?
It’s been asked of me: What is scarier? To find out the awful truth that there are endangered species in the world while I am still young; that the cute little ocelot at the zoo is one of only a handful left in the world? Or is it worse to grow up, and know nothing about the world’s wildlife woes until I am an adult? And then be expected to fix it?
I stand and make a torrid appeal to educators on behalf of children and wildlife: Please tell us the problems now so that we are ready for the task we face.
Children like me do not want to grow up and find out all of a sudden it is up to us to save wildlife and habitats. By then it is too late. By then we have chosen other educational paths, we have debts to pay, children to raise and corporate ladders to climb. But if you will educate us honestly and truthfully while we are still young, we will have the time to make life choices that change the tide of environmental disasters like the ones that ALMOST occurred when two teachers at my school planned to release unwanted classroom pets such as exotic African leopard frogs and African clawed frogs in a San Antonio river. With the truth about endangered species, we can begin our impact now, and continue to grow toward the future.
In Spiderman, Peter’s uncle said something cool. He said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” I began to think about how this applies to nature and kids. I say, “With great knowledge comes great responsibility.” Knowledge plus wisdom equals power.
Docents have both power and responsibility.
Robert F. Kennedy spoke these words in 1968:
“This world demands the qualities of youth; not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease….It is young people who must take the lead.”
We kids can’t take the lead if we aren’t properly prepared. We can’t take the lead if the truth is sugar coated. Children do need to know about endangered species and all the reasons that brings an animal to the point of extinction. That is the only way we can lead the next generation.
Where do Docents fit in?
Docent Leaders shaped my life!
Kids come through the doors of zoos or aquariums every day and they look just like me. And I am just like them. The only difference between me and the next 9 year-old that loves nature, is the kind of leadership we have had- especially the docents. I’m one of the lucky ones. What kind of leadership am I talking about? There are different levels of commitment which people have had to my education and me.
Every kind of leadership is important. Which level will you commit to for another child like me?
Primary Leaders: Parents
Of course these are the adults who have spent the most time with me, sharing their values, teaching me respect and responsibility. My mom drives me everywhere I need to go. She gets dirty with me and she gets excited about stuff with me. She even types for me. My Dad is an orthopedic surgeon and he has joined me in my rehabilitation efforts by doing surgeries on eagles, hawks and other wildlife. He even fixed a set of Mako shark jaws for SeaWorld. He teaches us how to be safe out in the wild so we can go have adventures. He also helps Josh and me pay for some of our video projects.
Secondary Leaders: Mentors at zoological facilities.
Besides parents, these are the most important leaders I have had because they made a time commitment to me and they took a chance with me.
1. Shannon Duepner, Education manager at SeaWorld. She meets with me weekly, introduces me to biologists, aquarists, trainers, researchers and aviculturists. She finds things to show me and suggests projects I might be interested in. She oversees my research projects and is involved in most of my learning.
2. John Karger, Executive Director of Last Chance Forever, the Bird of Prey Conservancy. Mr. Karger believed in me when I was 5. He met with me every other week, invited me out to his farm and he took me out on rescues. Mr. Karger helped me mold my philosophies on conservation.
The next kind of leaders I’ve had are people I don’t see on a regular basis. Maybe once a month or even once every few months. They can’t make a huge time commitment to me, but they really care about my education and they check up on me. These are the next most important leaders to a kid.
1. Kim Hoskins- I met Kim at the bird facility and we have stayed friends. I only see her 2 or 3 times a year, but every time I see her she gives me loads of information and tells me about projects she’s doing. I know she’s been thinking about me because when I see her she usually has a poster or a book that she has been lugging around until the next time she sees me. She calls our house and lets me know when something cool is going on in the community like a conference or something special at the botanical gardens. She also sets me up for those special up-close experiences I was talking about that kids need like arranging for me to see bats face to face. When I am speaking Miss Kim always attends and makes sure I’m safe and not worried about people who disagree with me.
2. Chuck Cureau is an animal trainer and part time actor. He shares my passion for video work and conservation. Because he wanted to encourage me and my brother in our video work, he arranged for us to work on a professional video with him. I only see him about once a month when I am around the beluga whales. Every time I see him however, he takes me back to the animals to teach me something neat and asks me what projects my brother and I are working on. I know that if I ever need anything, I can count on him.
Leaders in the Nature Community
The next level of people who have influenced me are people I hardly know. They are usually busy people who have taken time from their day to sit with me once and teach me something they know or do. They bring me into their world and then I have to go back to mine. They usually stay in contact with me.
Mr. and Mrs. J. David Bamberger. The Bambergers are two of the most experienced and passionate land conservationists in South Texas. They teach landowners how to care for land properly so that they have water, the correct types of trees and grass and many species of wildlife. I’ve only met with them once or twice. But in the short amount of time I have spent with them, they made a very large impact on me.
Finally, there are people whom I have never met face to face, but they have decided kids are worth talking to and believing in, so they make sure they stay in contact with me, usually through email.
Barbara Callahan: She’s the Regional Director for the International Bird Rescue and Research Center in Alaska. I met her because I wrote a letter volunteering to help clean up after the huge oil spill that killed hundreds of black footed penguins off the coast of South Africa when I was 7 years old. I’ve never met her face to face, but we like each other a lot. I receive emails from her and updates on every oil spill on the globe. She takes pictures for me of spills she works on and sends me books. She has had a really big impact on me even though she’s very far away. She tells me the problems the oiled wildlife in the world face, but she also shows me how hard she and the IFAW work to solve those problems. Because of Miss Barbara, I am not afraid when I think of oilspills. I am motivated to see them come to an end.
Leaders come in all kinds of commitment levels- from the weekly meeting to the occasional email. All of them count. When everyone works together, we kids can hear bad news about the environment and know that we are not alone in our fight to save even the most endangered species. This is how we learn. This is what we need. Which level of commitment to a child will you choose?
For the love of life,
Hawks on the wing,
Eagles in the sky and
For the love of peace,
We must always put up a fight.