Lions And Tigers And Bears, Oh My!
Betty Goodman and Ellen Rogalin
Minnesota Zoo, Apple Valley, MN
Visitors to zoos and aquariums come with a wide variety of perceptions and preconceived notions about animals and the environment gathered from their constant exposure to television, advertising, movies and other media. From “Shark Week” on the Discovery, Channel, to news stories about “killer” bees, to movies like Arachnophobia, people are bombarded daily with information, from accurate to wildly inaccurate, about animals. As volunteers and docents, we must be aware of those preconceptions and attitudes, and take advantage of opportunities to support the accurate information and correct the inaccurate perceptions.
The media – advertising, television, movies, video games, newspapers – bombards people every day with an enormous variety of mixed messages about animals and the environment. Those messages result in behaviors and questions that volunteers and docents need to respond to, and sometimes, correct (gently, of course).
Some of the ideas people have about animals and the environment:
Zoo animals are “tame” – since they are in zoos, they are domesticated, cute and harmless; not dangerous.
Animals think, act and react like human beings – or at least like we think our pet cats and dogs do.
There are “good” animals and “bad” animals.
Animals in zoos are mistreated and confined, and should be liberated and returned to the wild – where they would all be much better off.
Animals housed alone in zoos are “lonely,” and the zoo is cruel not to have them with others of their species.
All snakes are poisonous (and even if they’re not poisonous, at least they are slimy and disgusting).
If I can’t see how an animal specifically is Useful to me, then it doesn’t serve any purpose and has no reason to exist.
If an animal is dangerous, it should be destroyed.
Where do these ideas come from?
Millions of people around the world grew up watching Dorothy (and her incredibly well-behaved and obedient dog, Toto) be afraid of lions and tigers and bears – and then find out that lions are actually cuddly cowards (The Wizard of Oz also taught us that monkeys can fly and that there really are “horses of a different color.”). Should it be any surprise, then, that some people come to our zoos and wild animal parks and don’t think twice about lifting their children over the fence to see the lion up close?
There are many examples of all-too-frequent portrayals of reptiles as slimy, dangerous, man-eating and vengeful. No wonder people walk into a room, see a snake, shudder (or scream) and leave quickly. Indiana Jones and James Bond give even the most macho folks permission to be afraid of snakes and spiders, and to believe they should be destroyed.
The perception of wild animals – especially those in zoos – as really being tame or as being easy to tame is probably one of the most ingrained beliefs among people who come to zoos. They’ve seen circuses where people are working closely with the animals; they assume zookeepers go in with the animals to feed them, groom them, etc. They see the tiger sleeping in the shade or the Komodo dragon lazing in the water – and assume they have learned to be peaceful. They assume that the venom has been removed from the poisonous snakes, the stingers have been removed from the stingrays and the claws are trimmed on the big cats. No wonder people hold their children over the dolphin tank to get a better look (after all, the dolphins are smiling, aren’t they?), knock on windows and wave to animals to “attract” them, and stick their fingers through bars to try to touch the sun bear.
Using examples from movies, advertisements and television, we’ll look at some of the strong messages sent out about animals and the environment, how that impacts what the public thinks or feels about certain animals, and how volunteers and docents can best respond to those preconceptions.