Talk to the Animals

Zoologist and animal behaviour expert, Sally Hibbard, is interested in the relationship between people and their pets. She’s a fan of frogs, scared of spiders and can be seen spotting stick insects.

Talk to the Animals: Why do we love animals?

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Burma the elephant at Auckland Zoo.
Burma the elephant at Auckland Zoo.

"Oh look at the Turtis!" I hear this a lot as it seems to be what you say to cover all bases if you're not sure if it's a turtle or a tortoise. During the course of animal themed events where I am often found knee deep in pets and people, comments like this start to take on a life of their own.

To be fair it's easy enough to mix up turtles and tortoises. Perhaps not so easy is to confuse a small fluffy rodent with a Mexican snack item. At a similar event a very confident young man began telling his girlfriend all about the 'enchiladas' that live high up in the Andes Mountains. I believe he was actually referring to chinchillas, small squirrel like animals prized for their fur. Being temporarily overcome with mirth at this fascinating natural history lesson neither I nor my staff was in a position to correct him - and they certainly enjoyed meeting these creatures even if the name was a bit off.

I work with that combination you're never supposed to - children and animals. Not surprisingly those children that have had limited exposure to animals react quite differently to their presence than those that are more familiar with them.

The former typically respond with fear and distrust and are very hesitant to hold or even touch an animal as harmless as a guinea pig or mouse. Confidence must be contagious, as when they see other children engage with the animals, they are encouraged to participate and are often able to move past fear and begin learning about and appreciating the animals on display. It is certainly worthwhile to encourage children to interact with animals in a positive and respectful way, and these children are less likely to be scared by or even hurt animals due to their unfamiliar nature.

Even with the increased availability of wildlife documentaries and animal themed content on our screens, the ability of animals on display to pull the crowds seems constant. To watch people watching animals is fascinating, with responses ranging from awe and wonder to fear, surprise and even revulsion.

To see an animal up close offers an opportunity to make a real connection that just isn't quite the same as secondhand images from a camerapersons perspective, brilliant though these often are.

One of NZ's largest animal attractions, Auckland Zoo has no shortage of visitors with continual increases in people through the gates particularly amongst the younger age group. In excess of 717,000 local and overseas visitors were recorded over the last twelve months alone.

Read more: Are zoos good or evil?

When asked why zoos are so popular, head of Life Sciences Kevin Buley from Auckland Zoo says "all the species we have at the Zoo help us educate our community about, and create connections with, wildlife that they would otherwise never get a chance to experience".

Over 80 per cent of New Zealanders live in cities and so, increasingly, our communities have lost that connection to nature and don't understand the effect our everyday lives have on wildlife. These experiences are an important way to inspire people to care more for the environment and to take action to help conserve natural habitats.

The World Association for Zoo's and Aquarium's reports visitors in excess of 700 million each year all around the world.

Reasons for going to a zoo or wildlife park are varied, with common responses to surveys including; curiosity, entertainment, education, to connect with nature, relaxation or to see a particular animal or themed event. It is interesting to note that a recent survey by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in the United States found that visitors had a higher than expected understanding of ecological concepts, perhaps due to all the wildlife documentaries on offer.

There's no better way to learn about animals than to see them up close, and to share some time and space with our fellow creatures.

- www.nzherald.co.nz

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