Monday, October 31, 2011

Project Learning and HAWS Animals

Earlier this month I was contacted by an extremely mature middle school student from Bay Lane Middle School in Muskego, WI about a school project she was hoping HAWS could help with. Cassie, and her friend Nicole, were researching the effect that human and animal interactions have on both people and animals, and were wondering if they could come in and interview some people at HAWS about this topic.

Bay Lane Middle School is unique to Wisconsin -- it is a project based school in which students are placed in teams of two to four individuals, and are educated through doing projects, rather than through traditional curriculum.

Cassie and Nicole stopped in one morning and got a tour of HAWS while the staff and volunteers were still cleaning animal cages and spent time with volunteers who work with dogs, cat and small animals.

Before they left I asked them if I could see the project when it was finished, and just today I received an e-mail with a link to their finished project -- a website with their findings.

Congratulations to Cassie and Nicole -- they did a wonderful job finding the information, putting it together and creating a website!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Wild Animals as Pets

Every other Friday I do an after-school program at Blair Elementary School in Waukesha, WI. Last Friday my planned activity was one in which students are read a story about a boy who dreams that Martians have captured him. The boy is lonely, eats the same food every day, is bored, misses being able to be outside and be free, and is frightened when the martians pick him up and when they yell at him for misbehaving.

After the story the students are asked to discuss how the boy felt, and how it might feel to be a wild animal in the same situation.

While I didn't plan it, the timing of the activity corresponded with the news that an Ohio man had released his 56 exotic animals (including bears, lions, tigers and leopards) before committing suicide.

The activity generated some really great discussion about keeping wild animals as pets. Most of the kids understood that wild animals would be very unhappy being kept in captivity -- especially after I showed them photos of lions at the San Diego Safari Park and then photos of tigers being kept in a small chain link cage. I explained the range of habitat that big cats would have in the wild, and the type of space they'd have if kept as someone's pet. And we talked about how zoos attempt to create environments that are similar to those the animals would have in the wild and how they spend a lot of time trying to ensure that the animals are happy in a zoo habitat.

One of the boys said that if you raise a wild animal from baby on it won't be dangerous. I told the students about one of Siegfried and Roy's tigers attacking Roy -- a tiger that he'd raised from a cub and that had been working with him on stage for years before the attack. I explained that wild animals will always be wild -- and that they have instincts that will always be there no matter how they are trained.

While I know that kids often think it would be cool to have an exotic animal as a pet, I think the Blair Elementary School after-school students were given some ideas to think about that may change their minds. Hopefully the seed of doubt planted today will help them feel more humanely about wild animals kept in captivity in the future.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


Anthropomorphism is defined by as "ascribing human form or attributes to a being or thing not human..."

Being anthropomorphic with animals can be a good thing or a bad thing. For instance, when I'm working with children I try to encourage them to think in anthropomorphic terms with animals because it can help them develop empathy and respect in how they treat all living creatures. If you can put yourself in a pets place it's easier to understand how frightening it might be to have a stranger walk up to you and immediately start petting. Often times I'll ask kids if they like to be bothered when they're trying to eat dinner or if they're trying to sleep. When they tell me no, I ask them to consider that pets also don't like to be bothered.

On the other hand being anthropomorphic can interfer with being able to provide an animal's needs. I remember years ago I had rats that I kept in my office as education pets. When I first got them one of our very kindhearted volunteers bought me a nightlight to keep in the office so the rats weren't in the pitch dark during the evening and on weekends. While this is something that most humans would appreciate, rats are nocturnal. Wild rats rarely see the light of day, and are most active at night when they have the cover of darkness.

Last week I went to San Diego for the annual Association of Pet Dog Trainers conference. I went a few days early and was able to visit the San Diego Zoo Safari Park which is renowned for keeping their animals in huge open enclosures with as natural a setting as possible. Unlike most zoos, the Zoo Safari park allows many of it's animals to roam over many acres. While I was there I was lucky enough to be able to see the baby elephant that was born only 2 weeks prior.

One of the opening speakers at the conference was Jeff Andrews -- elephant manager for the San Diego Zoo and the Zoo Safari Park. One part of his presentation - with video, was about elephants and how they care for new born calves. After an elephant calf is born the mother elephant tries to get the amniotic sac off the baby and get it to it's feet as soon as possible. This would be important in the wild to prevent predators for getting to immobilized calves.

The process is a bit hard to watch. Mom elephant bellows and roars and uses her feet and tusks to try and get the sac off. She continues after the sac is gone in an effort to get her baby to it's feet. It looks violent and from our standpoint appears that her baby will be hurt and killed as this is going on.

Jeff Andrews told us that in the past many zoos chain their elephants when they're giving birth because the process does look so vicious and the zoo keepers were afraid that the baby would be seriously hurt and killed -- which at times can happen. However -- this is how elephants give birth in the wild, and the Zoo Safari Park prefers to be as hands off as possible and let nature take it's course.

Anthropomorphism in this case got in the way of letting mother elephants follow their instincts. And since elephants have been giving birth for thousands of years without dying out as a species, who are we to say they're doing it wrong?