by Isabella Linares, Oakland Zoo
When children are asked about their favorite animal, they usually name popular mammals, such as the lion or an animal from a beloved movie, like the red panda. These animals are adored for their distinct features. Children’s perceptions of them in contrast with their experience of “less charismatic” species, such as reptiles and invertebrates. Unfortunately, these less popular species are often overlooked and forgotten due to the long-standing phobias, myths and superstitions associated with them.
An animal’s characteristics contribute to its ability to elicit empathy from humans. Other factors, such as coherence (how recognizable its features are), continuity (how long we spend with that animal) and its ability to show agency (control over its actions), also play important roles.
Mammals often have physical characteristics humans can relate to, making it easier for us to recognize these factors in them rather than in a snake. So, how can we use choice in our programs to promote a sense of animal agency for our visitors while promoting an empathetic response for the “less captivating” species?
Helping children overcome their fear of animals
Sarah Bowser, ambassador animals programs manager at Oakland Zoo, addressed how to help children overcome their fear of snakes. She created an interactive lesson with an interchangeable snake enrichment board. The lesson was conducted twice a week as part of the middle school Oakland ZooCamp program, where students could interact with one of three snakes — Karibu, Nuba (both ball pythons) and Timmy (a gopher snake).
Prior to the activity, the students took part in a predrawing assessment to determine their comfort level with snakes. During the evaluation, some children drew themselves safely away from the snake, while others depicted the snake coiled around their neck to show how dangerous they believed snakes could be. After the evaluations, Bowser introduced each snake to the students, providing background information on their species and characteristics, sharing her relationship with each snake and demonstrating appropriate behavior, such as staying calm, allowing the snakes to be themselves and letting them choose what they wanted to do.
During the lesson, the students used a pegboard, which allowed them to interchange pieces and decide on how they wanted to present the board to each snake. They closely observed how the snakes chose to interact with their enrichment.
Understanding animal wellbeing
Animal wellbeing goes beyond the general care of an animal. It maintains comfort, health and “happiness” for the animal and provides lifelong opportunities to thrive. By allowing the snakes to have agency, interact from a safe distance and move independently, the children could build respect for them in a way that didn’t require physical contact. They felt empowered to ask questions in a curiosity-driven environment and felt like they were contributing to Karibu, Nuba and Timmy’s wellbeing, which led to a more lasting impact.
Oakland Zoo aims to cultivate accurate empathy by discouraging projected assumptions and enabling visitors to learn about animals and gain substantial knowledge. The Oakland ZooCampers’ interactions with snakes gave them a better understanding of their complex nature allowing them to appreciate their unique personalities.
When creating a culture within our community that is motivated to participate in Oakland Zoo’s mission of “Taking Action for Wildlife,” visitors must approach the animals with respect and empathy. To achieve this, we can incorporate choice into zoo-wide programs, which have the potential to encourage empathy and promote deeper connections to wildlife. Students who participated in this program created a connection with the animals that viewing alone could not achieve. This program successfully nurtured their connection and the lessons learned at Oakland Zoo will stay with them.
For more about the Oakland Zoo’s other programs, check out these stories:
Did you know that one of our original hosts, Marlin Perkins, was a herpetologist? Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom has long had a passion for reptiles, amphibians and other species that are often overlooked. Our new show, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom Protecting the Wild, features some of these “creepy crawlies” that are beneficial to our ecosystem, including one species lovingly referred to by some as a “snot-otter”. Learn about the Ozark hellbender.