Kids love animals. Even at a very young age, kids are attracted to them—they learn the names and sounds of animals before they learn other, more practical words and phrases. Why the fascination? Unlike toys, animals move without anyone pulling or pushing them, they move around in unpredictable ways, they make unexpected and unusual noises and they are just enough like us to be intriguing. Most of the animals that kids are likely to come across have some of our same characteristics: they eat, they poop, they have eyes, a nose, feet.
At Boston Children’s Museum, we are happy to offer opportunities to meet some animals. Oliver the snake and Watson the bearded dragon regularly come out of their tanks so kids can get an up-close and personal look at them. We want children to have fun and memorable experiences with animals, since this is often the first step to becoming interested in nature and the environment as a whole.
So one day you come in, and there’s one of our staff with the snake on their arm. Many adults’ immediate reaction is to pull their child away to protect them. But just as we try to teach children not to have prejudices about each other, we don’t want them to grow up fearing or mistrusting animals either. Our critters are very used to being handled, and the staff are very used to handling them. Children are welcome to touch them and observe closely as long as they follow directions: we ask everyone to use a “one-finger gentle touch” and to touch only where they are directed. These rules are there to keep everyone safe. “Safe?” I hear you say. “What do they need to be kept safe from? I thought you said these animals are harmless! Is that snake going to bite me?”
Animals are like people: unpredictable. And just as you would with people, it’s always best to approach animals with respect. Respect is not the same as fear; respect is about recognizing someone’s needs and limitations, and responding appropriately. I am very comfortable handling the snake, but I’m not going to close my hand over his face; it scares him. Does the snake bite? Yes, but only if he’s annoyed or frightened; frankly, if a giant hand suddenly covered my face, I might bite too. But that’s why we have rules: to make sure everyone has a good experience.
Of course, meeting the animals isn’t just a great experience for kids. Many adults have misconceptions about animals, and in some cases these have developed into fears. This is the perfect time to relieve these fears and learn the facts. So the next time you see a critter out of his cage, stop by and say hello! You may be surprised at what you find out.