children and animals

Every afternoon I do an “animal demo” for the Zoo Campers in the overly-air-conditioned Zoo auditorium. Somewhere between fifteen and 120 campers and their teachers file in, in identical blue and dragonflied Tshirts. Some of them are extremely tiny and are basically, if we’re honest here, still having a little bit of trouble with the stairs. The oldest are in middle school and look world-weary and tend to have bits of their hair dyed bright colors. Some of them come back to Camp week after week, and we wave at each other – enthusiastically, if they’re a little one; as if we’re almost too cool, if they’re in middle school. Sometimes I pass these kids on the Zoo trails and they react almost as if I’m some kind of B-list celebrity. “Is that the girl who did the show?” they whisper to their green-shirted Zoo Teen.

Florida_Box_Turtle_Digon3

There’s a Zoo volunteer there to actually handle the animals, so that I can have my hands free to gesticulate wildly. The volunteers are always elderly, and think that I’m an intern. Sometimes they tell me how proud my parents must be. They have worked at the Zoo for decades. They know everything about the animals. They are hard of hearing, and they are good and gentle with the animals. They can tell immediately when they have had enough, and it’s time to slip them back into the peaceful darkness of their carrying cases. (The animals, that is, not the volunteers themselves.)

With children spread out before us, feet tapping the ground, whispering and ooh-ing, we bring out hedgehogs and armadillos, bearded dragons and ball pythons. The volunteer parades them around the room while I carry on a cheery dialogue into my hand-held mic. I have twenty minutes to tell them something they’ll remember. I have twenty minutes to get them to start caring. (Really, though, most of them care a lot already.) I talk about the motherly instincts of female tarantulas. I talk about hognose snakes playing dead in a sandy desert. I ask them to feel their vertebrae and think about where a turtle’s is. I ask them what qualities make an animal a good pet. One girl raises her hand and says, matter-of-factly, “You love them.”

They come up with these completely inexplicable and adorable non sequitors all the time. The rule is to raise your hand when you have a question, but just as often as questions, there are, “Well, it’s actually more of a statement.” One boy raised his hand and when I called on him, using the name written on his tiny shirt, he said, “One time – one time, my dad ate an octopus. And then he turned green.” We had been talking about turtles at the time. Just today, a very small boy named Matthew raised his hand. I’d been talking about tarantula’s egg sacs. I called on him, and he said, breathlessly, “I have two sisters. They’re really furry. Because they’re cats.”

At the end of the twenty minutes, when I like to imagine their heads are fairly bursting with knowledge, they file by the front of the room to touch whatever animal we’ve been chatting about most recently. Their chubby fingers stroke the smooth scales of a snake or the bumpy skin of a lizard. Some of them are cautious, poking the animal lightly as if it might at any moment rise up and attack. Others stand there petting and petting and petting until their teacher kindly shoos them along. They stare at the volunteer and me vacantly. Quite frequently they ask for the precise birthday of the animal, as if they might want to throw it a party. The animals, for their part, wriggle in the volunteer’s veiny hands and blink at the tiny children. The snakes’ tongues flicker violently. The turtles wave their dark flippers in the air fruitlessly.

These children will love them; will remember their names.

Their distant wild relatives crawl quietly through dark and verdant wood.

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