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Child-Animal Connections & Unintended Teachings

The coronavirus pandemic has given us so many new learning opportunities and time for reflection. With fewer field trips on the calendar, I've been participating in several virtual advocacy and environmental education conferences. Combined with my recent reading (and re-reading, because it's that good) of Richard Louv's newest book, Our Wild Calling: How Connecting With Animals Can Transform Our Lives - And Save Theirs, I'm reflecting on ways we can avoid unintended teachings when presenting topics on local wildlife and their habitats.

When students have the opportunity to observe local wildlife in their natural habitats, they often make connections to captive, exotic (non-endemic) wildlife they have seen at roadside zoos, pet stores, or even a friend's home. They express a desire to touch, hold or 'keep' wildlife - extending that feeling of connection in a way that can take us from a positive teaching experience to an unintended teaching experience.

Even our summer secondary students, while observing the life cycle of Long-toed Salamanders this summer, found themselves struggling with returning the salamanders to their natural habitat. They wanted to maintain that connection; they didn't want to say goodbye. So - how do we avoid unintended teachings?

I'm going to start by clarifying three things:

  1. Native (endemic) wildlife vs. exotic (non-endemic) wildlife: Chuntoh modules are about local, native (endemic) species.

  2. Free-ranging wildlife vs. captive wildlife: Chuntoh modules include observations of free-ranging wildlife.

  3. Invasive vs. non-invasive research techniques: Chuntoh observations focus on non-invasive research techniques (cameras, hair, scat, tracks).

Two years ago, we investigated the possibility of hosting one or two 'owl ambassadors': non-releasable Northern saw-whet owls (due to wing injury or blindness) who could visit classrooms. We decided not to move forward with this program, because of concerns around unintended teachings - would learners focus on the habitat conservation message... or would they leave wanting an owl (or other bird) as a pet?

If you are worried about unintended teachings when working with animals and students, I encourage you to read resources from: children's book author Rob Laidlaw, Zoocheck Canada and World Animal Protection. And explore positive ways of encouraging child-animal connections by reading Richard Louv's new book!

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