Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A day at the zoo

Yesterday, I took off work to go with my wife and kids to the zoo. The kids were going to be taking a class, organized by a group who sets up classes for home-schooled children, and I wanted to go with them. I went for a number of reasons:

  1. I love being with my wife and kids,
  2. I wanted to go to the zoo (although I have mixed feelings about it),
  3. they were going to get a behind-the-scenes look at how the lions and tigers are handled, and
  4. it was a long, tiring trip into the city with all its traffic and crowds and I didn't want my wife to face that alone.

The zoo itself was a little disappointing. I'd never been to the Franklin Park Zoo before. This is one of the two large zoos in the Boston area (the other, the Stone Zoo, is north of Boston). It wasn't the greatest day to be there (it was cold and windy) and many of the exhibits were closed for the winter (the giraffes, the butterflies, many of the birds, the train). But I still found it exciting. I've included a few pictures of the animals here. The top three are obvious - the lion, the tiger and the zebras. But you may not recognize the fourth picture. It's called a wildebeest and is also known as the gnu. The fifth picture is the rear view of an ostrich. It refused to listen to my pleas to stand and turn around for a good picture. Trust me - it was big!

I found the kids' class fascinating. The class was about training the zoo animals. My first thought was why would they train the animals. This wasn't a show like Sigfried and Roy or a trained dog act. They explained how they need to get the animals to do certain things on command so they can feed them or treat them with medicine or just inspect them for injuries or disease. So, they teach the animals to come, roll over, stand up and stretch high etc. They showed some examples of training and then talked about the trouble of doing all this training without being able to touch the animals or have the animals understand them. Then they led the kids in a "game" to see how you go about training the animals with these constraints. One child would volunteer to be the "animal" and leave the room. Then, the class decided what they would like to train the "animal" to do. Something fairly simple due to the short time. Then, the volunteer entered the room and had to figure out what they were supposed to do. No one could tell them or show them. You just had to move around until the trainer rewarded you with a treat (a piece of candy in this case). So, the "animal" would try all sorts of different things until it got rewarded enough to do the thing the class wanted. Of course, the trainer had to decide if each little behavior was close enough to a step toward the behavior to offer a reward. Imagine also how the animal would feel - "Why did I get a treat when I did this but not when I did that?" It took a lot of work on both ends.

Then we got to see behind the exhibits for the lion and tigers to see how the handlers used the trained behavior to feed the big cats and inspect them for sores or other injuries. This was very interesting and pretty smelly. I don't envy the people that do this job. It's both dangerous and messy.

It seems a shame to confine these magnificent animals in small enclosures like this. It seems like it would be better to leave them in their native habitat. But it is exciting to see them for real. And it helps to raise our awareness of the problems in their native habitat. Some of these animals, like the tigers, are in the zoo because they were removed from the private collection of someone who didn't know what they were getting into when they got a pair of cute tiger cubs. And some of the animals are endangered and have small numbers in the wild. The zoos are able to help with breeding programs and to learn how to better protect the animals in their native lands. Fortunately, modern zoos are much better at making enclosures for the animals that mimic their natural habitats, too. All in all, if it is done right, I think zoos are a positive thing. As long as we don't overdo it. After all, we don't want to get to the point where we're removing all the large animals from the wild to "protect" them and have no real, natural habitat left.

A side note - I have pictures of my wife and kids at the zoo but I didn't include them. I have this inordinate fear that someone will see them on this blog and want to look them up. That's why I'm a little vague about my name and where we live. I hope that some day I'll get over this phobia so I can include more pictures of them. After all, I do have the prettiest wife and most beautiful children on the planet!

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