Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

June 23, 2013

Animal encounters educational

— Even as an adult I find I still get pretty excited about getting up-close and personal with wild animals.  I was pretty excited last week when I found myself on my way to the library in Bluefield, Va., knowing I would be getting to meet an American kestrel, a red-tailed hawk and a barred owl. The birds were there to teach children about wildlife, but they weren’t the only ones who were excited about the visitors.

I found myself thinking more like a 5-year-old than an almost 25-year-old on the way over, wondering if they would let us pet the birds or have them fly around the room.

I’ve been an animal lover since I was a kid and like most children, I was always fascinated by wildlife. Whether in the backyard or on the annual school field trip to the Nashville Zoo, it was always an exciting time when I knew I was going to get close to animals I usually only saw on TV.

The zoo was a popular destination for end-of-the-year “good behavior” field trips as well as a good day out with Mom in the summer. We would always want to see the bigger animals like the elephants, ostriches, peacocks, giraffes and monkeys. My brother loved the indoor exhibit will all the wild reptiles, amphibians and bats. They sometimes had reindeer around the holidays and then there was the massive playground with animal themes we always loved.

And because the zoo was in Tennessee they had the requisite farm exhibit full of cows, pigs and horses at the Croft House, an old antebellum mansion also known as Grassmere, where the zoo began.

Visits to the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga were also common weekend trips or field trips as a kid. In addition to all of the creatures from lakes, rivers, streams and oceans we got to see there were other animals like songbirds and butterflies. The stingrays and river otters were always my favorite, though seeing sharks, eels and turtles was pretty fun as well. Unfortunately, they didn’t bring the penguins to the aquarium until I was too old to be seen elbowing my way to the front and pressing my nose up against the window.

We toured out fair share of nature parks as well, going to places where there were wild animals relatively free to roam. One year my grandparents took me to a butterfly conservatory. Aviaries, wildlife parks and national parks were always on the agenda and Mom and Dad were more than happy that looking for animals kept us fairly quiet on these trips. We had a local children’s center that kept smaller animals like porcupines, snakes, mice and lizards they occasionally brought out for show-and-tell demonstrations.

I know a lot of people have concerns about the morality of keeping animals in zoos or in nature parks. Sure, forcing animals to live in a confined, highly controlled habitat doesn’t exactly sound fun when you really think about it, but a lot of the animals in zoos are animals that couldn’t survive if left to their own devices in the wild. In this way, these animals not only get to teach us more about the world around us but they get a safe place to live with people who really care about them.

Being able to see these animals in their own environments, on their own turf but yet in an area where I still felt relatively safe, was an important learning experience. It taught me to respect nature, especially those creatures that are much larger than me. It also taught me to appreciate the wonderful diversity of both the animal kingdom and the world as a whole. It showed me that just because an animal isn’t cute and cuddly doesn’t meant it isn’t vital or important to the large ecosystem.

Though I’m not partial to deer getting up close and personal with my car and I’m smart enough to avoid snakes I come across in the wild, I am still enthralled by up-close encounters with nature.

At the library, I learned I wasn’t the only one. There were plenty of parents and grandparents just as excited as the children with them to see these wild birds so close. No matter how things have changed over time, it is still amazing to see the wild wonders of nature.

Kate Coil is a reporter at the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at kcoil@bdtonline.com.

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