by Whit Gibbons

September 12, 2010

As school begins for little children across the country, I remember an earlier adventure in which I watched two little children, Andrew and Emily, find bugs under a log in the woods. They found three roly-polies, slate gray; a beetle grub, ivory white; and a not-to-be-touched centipede, bright orange. Emily caught the fat grub and wanted to keep it; she returned it to its home after her brother put down the roly-polies he had caught. Both are college age now and are still fascinated by animals big and small.

They listened intently when I told them not to pick up the centipede. I explained that they should not touch any animal unless someone who knows about it says it is safe to do so. Children should be taught not to fear nature but to respect it. No animal should be labeled "bad" because it protects itself by biting or stinging; it just shouldn't be picked up unless you know what you are doing. Children should learn that every animal must protect itself. Some bite or sting. Others may hide or run away or smell bad. Youngsters' unassuming attitude toward life is appealing. Early exposure to the living world is the ideal way to ensure a child reaches adulthood with an appreciation of the environment.

I also introduced two brothers, Jacob and Justin, to some wonders of our natural world and was confronted with an intriguing puzzle about child behavior. During a trip to an ecology lab, the boys held a big pine snake, a full-grown possum, baby alligators and a large gopher tortoise. Neither showed any alarm. Then, I showed them a small marbled salamander, a harmless, shiny, black-and-white creature that fascinates almost everyone. Most people want to touch it. Jacob was terrified; he clung to his daddy as if a monster had entered the room. I marveled that this was the same little boy who had just held an enormous constricting snake twice as long as he was and as big around as his 3-year-old leg.

As Jacob wanted nothing more to do with amphibians, we left to go feed a big alligator in a nearby pond enclosed by a chain-link fence. When the 600-pound reptile came out of the water to be fed, I had to tell both boys to step away from the fence because they were getting too close. Fascinated by an 11-foot alligator and frightened by a tiny salamander? It was and still is a puzzlement to me.

I remember a time when learned versus innate behavior was clearly at work. I was talking about local animals to a dozen parents and their children in a friend's backyard. My friend wanted his neighbors to develop an appreciation of the wildlife around them. A lot of neighborhoods could use a dose of local ecology as many people are unaware of what fascinating plants and animals are within walking distance of their homes.

After seeing a few frogs, lizards and turtles, everyone was attentive, including a man holding a baby. All moved closer to see what would be displayed next. I reached in to get a harmless kingsnake and the snake bolted out of the bag. Within seconds I had retrieved the snake, but not before the audience could react.

The scene was classic. Twelve parents went scrambling backward; fourteen children were moving forward. All the kids tried to touch the snake and most wanted to hold it. The little baby was reaching toward me, clearly lamenting the fact that she was being carried away from the scene by a father who wasn't looking back. I do believe behavioral conditioning entered into this picture: its absence in the children, its presence in the adults.

If answers to our environmental problems are going to be found in the future, we must invest in the proper training and education of today's children by teaching them to respect nature and to enjoy the myriad wonders in the natural world. Then they can teach their parents how to appreciate the living world around them.

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