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.