Most children when left to themselves in natural and wild habitats, will sooner or later develop an affinity towards nature. Whether it is a toddler tasting a slug, or a young teen envying and admiring the flight of a hawk, or a pre-teen chewing casually on a grass stem or trying to hook a fish, the animal-kingdom denizens (insect, reptile, avian, mammal, aquatic et al) will, at some point, evoke their interest, too. Children’s attitude towards them will depend a lot on what adults have told/taught them about these creatures. Alas, even if intended to protect their child, most of the time, the messages being passed down are appalling.
Thus, all dogs will bite, cats will claw, tigers and lions will eat you, snakes are venomous and so are lizards, insects will sting, spiders will suck you dry, bulls will gore you, elephants will trample you, and sharks and crocodiles will rip you to shreds. So, be afraid, be very afraid and stay away from them at all times or take them down. It develops a sense of hostility and fear in them — wild creatures (even the not-so-wild ones) automatically become the enemy to be eliminated. So, stone dogs and cats, shoot tigers and lions (at least in Africa and America), club snakes to death, stomp on or spray at insects, dehorn bulls and deer, trap and brutally train elephants to salute, pounce upon and bind crocs with duct tape, and shoot sharks (see what the great white did in the 1975 film Jaws).
Granted, many children these days don’t have the opportunity of roaming around in the wilderness, and toddlers must be supervised so they don’t eat slugs! A lot of children’s interactions with nature come from the plethora of TV documentaries. Some are truly wonderful (BBC’s Round Planet, 2016), but there are too many of those where the presenters project the view that out there in the wild, in the rainforests, deserts, savannahs, mountains and oceans, in every natural habitat, each and every creature is out to get you. Your personal information is No. 1 on the hit list of every snake and scorpion, every malaria-ridden mosquito, every hungry carnivore, every bison, elephant, and, of course, crocs hiding in the water. So, inevitably, it’s either them or you. Nothing, of course, could be farther from the truth: Most wild creatures want to get away from you as quickly and as far as possible, because they have identified you as their enemy No. 1. If you invade their space — which you are doing by trampling their homes and habitats — if you threaten their babies or mates, they will stand and fight to the death. Well, wouldn’t you do the same?
In the West, they have what’s called petting zoos, where children can get up close and personal with all kinds of animals — under sensible adult supervision, of course. There, they learn how to interact with (relatively tame) animals. It’s tempting to say, we must teach our children to “respect” wild animals, but I find “respect” a hugely overused and very vague word, that doesn’t quite spell out exactly how or what a child must be taught while interacting with the animal kingdom.
There are some simple guidelines: Love and cherish your pets, dogs, cats, guinea pigs and on-the-shoulder birds as family members. Firmly discourage any inherent streak of cruelty your child shows (say to them, “How would you like it if someone dangled tin cans from your ears and you couldn’t take them off?”); wilder animals, like tigers, lions, elephants, rhinos, crocs, sharks must be admired from a distance (don’t be like the rednecks, never cuddle up with big cats, wrangle crocodiles or keep giant pythons as house-pets). Maintain distance from snakes, beehives and wasps’ nests! Get amazed by how a spider spins its web; be careful while wading in the shallows on the beach so that you don’t tread on a starfish or cone snail or tangle with a jellyfish. And, even if shark attacks are few and far between, stay out of shark-infested water.
The mantra is simple: watch, listen and admire from a distance. Do not interfere in the lives of wild creatures, which, alas, is what far too many television presenters are doing. There’s one gross program where heroes deliberately get bitten or stung to see how much pain they can endure.
Yes, if you come across an injured animal or bird, teach your child to help, or to summon professional help for it (since injured and ill animals can be understandably unpredictable). Though, it’s debatable whether even this should be done in wild areas where nature ought to be allowed to take its course. Thus, as the Beatles song goes, “…whisper words of wisdom, let it be!”
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