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 Texas : Features : Humor : Column - "Stumbling Forward"
The nature of child-rearing
In Pursuit of
Animal Knowledge

by John Gosselink
Author John Gosselink
Theodore Rooselink
My daughter has awoken to the wonders of nature. She is fascinated by all things animal, great and small, and her maturing mind and spirit yearn to soak up the very essence of what life is on our little planet. She's so exuberantly curious that I've had a terrible time quashing it.

I'm not a big fan of nature, especially the parts that walk around. Except the couple of creatures we have under control, I just get annoyed at nature, what with it always getting in my trash, digging up my yard, and making me do an embarrassing little panic jig when it comes slithering unexpectedly out of the wood pile.

But the kid wouldn't listen to logic. She was going to learn about animals, and she was either going get her info from me or from what she could pick up from older kids on the street. Why couldn't she be one of those couch potato, fat kids who played video games all day that I keep hearing about?

Daily, she peppers me with really complex, insightful questions about animals and their behavior. Trying to make the best out of a bad situation, I have spent an inordinate amount of time making up answers.

Her teacher is going to have a lot of work undoing the damage I've done. Thus far, I've taught her buzzards constantly float around in circles because they won't stop and ask for directions, the armadillo we saw snorting around the yard was looking for his contact lens, coyotes are poodles with better haircuts, squirrels are government spies, and all hedgehogs are Croatian.

I've tried to pepper in a few facts, but she sometimes has a problem handling the truth. Sure, the animal kingdom is full of majestic, fascinating, integral to the ecosystem, some even possibly sublime, creatures, but you want to stay as far away from them as possible. And stop going outside to look for them; you're letting the air conditioning out!

I blame Disney and their insidious portrayals of animals. If you're ambling through the forest, minding your own business, and come across an animal, it's not going to come up for a hug or some frolicking. No, it's going to either bite, sting, scratch, gore, stomp, trample, or in extreme instances, maul you.

But the daughter wouldn't be dissuaded. She was getting her animal info fix even if it killed me. Figuring I was getting dangerously close to the "legally bound to call CPS" trigger with all of my animal disinformation, I started hunting actual facts.

It was time to pray at the alter of the information age, the Internet. I searched for "animals and their habits," and like everything I search for, I got 21 million porno sites, a half dozen refinance your mortgage sites, and some guy named Ed's personal home page dedicated to his cat "ZoŽ."

Having been let down again by the most overrated technological advance since sliced bread (was society suddenly thrust into modernity when we stopped wasting our valuable time cutting bread?) I went back to the tools of my forefathers, something people back in the 1900's would do in their primitive ways to learn about animals. We went to the zoo.

More to the point, we went to the Austin Zoo, and if there was ever a zoo that clearly matched the city in which it was located, it's this one. Run by a lot of well intentioned, yet tragically hip and ironic, latter day hippies, inhabited exclusively by rescued animals with names like "Zeus," "Chico," and "Xerxes," and everyone, human and non-human alike, looking like they either had the munchies or were on the verge of spontaneously staging a pro-bike-trail-for-the-whales-in-pre-war-Iraq rally. It was all of the "Keep Austin Weird" aspects in an interestingly arranged, Southwestern themed, 10 acres of hill country.

The daughter ate up the actual face time with the animals, and some of the animals seem to like it too, maybe too much. The cougars were a little too interested in my pre-schooler, staring through the cage like a filet mignon just happened to walk up in a cute little jumper. We made a quick retreat to the snow-cone stand.

But what really got my attention were the Bengal tigers. Man, those things are huge, pre-stomach stapling Al Roker, huge. More interesting was the little sign reporting that there are more Bengal Tigers in Texas than in the wild in the rest of the world. Why doesn't this surprise me?

I don't know what it is about the Texan character, but in too many parts of the state, the idiotic hobby of collecting exotic game animals as pets is admired, especially in areas with low test scores and water quality judged poor.

Annually, you have to read the "child of idiot owner of tiger killed in inevitable attack" story. It's the quote by the not distraught enough daddy that let's you know the kid was doomed.

"Yeah, Simba, our Bengal Tiger, is great. We squeezed him into a tiny cage, made him endure the relentless Texas heat, ignored his natural stalking urges, and fed him generic dog food, but he was happy. I could tell. Really, I could. I don't know why he bit Junior's head off. The kid must have done something stupid like leave his room. Well, got to go chase the missus down; we got business to do. Childrens, thems replaceable. Simba aint."

Further proof that never in the twain should meet our wild animal friends was the Monkey Pox scare. The worst case in the states was when a woman gave her 3 year old an infected prairie dog and then the whole family was infected. Who gives a 3 year old a prairie dog? I would loved to hear that concerned parental conversation.

"Okay, we give her a prairie dog at 3, a Wildebeest at 4, and then at 5, move down to Texas and she can have a Bengal Tiger until it eats her head. Nothing says love like a wild beast attack."

Though the daughter is never going to have a pet more exotic than a dog so domesticated it's cross-eyed, she can still explore the animal world from a safe distance. Like beside me on the couch. I figure what you can't learn about nature from "Bambi" really doesn't need to be known.

August 17, 2003
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