Tuesday, April 26, 2011

'An Excellent Place to Observe the Habits of Human Beings'

            Evan Esar once called zoos an excellent place to observe the habits of human beings.   This is certainly true for the touch tank - especially when there are lots of families visiting.   At times, the touch tank is almost like a tree stand from which to observe various parenting strategies at work.

            The parents that are most successful at getting their kids interested in touching the animals are the ones who are interested in the animals themselves – or at least are willing to feign an interest long enough to convince Junior that the anemones aren’t going to eat his finger.   (Some small children don’t even want to come near the tank one they realize that there isn’t a lid on it.)    

            Then there are the parents who are benignly tolerant of whatever their youngster wants to do – they’ll stand back and take pictures, and let the kids pet the sea urchins if they want to, but they’re also totally fine if all the kid wants to do is splash the water around, or peer through the glass at the hermit crabs.   (Look, Mom - he's moving his claw...)   Really young kids just get a kick out of putting their hands in the water.  It’s a lot of fun to watch their faces when they find out that our 39-degree tank isn’t exactly bathwater temperature.   One kid just wanted to swim his hand through the anemone pool and pretend to be a sea lion.

            These also the parents who seem to be on a continual quest to keep up with their easily distractible offspring.   The family could have spent only 30 seconds at the touch tank, but as soon as the kid sees something else interesting, he’s off like a shot, and the parents grab the stroller and take off after him.   When my mother took my sister and me to museums, she had a rule that we couldn’t leave an exhibit until we had actually read the accompanying panel – thereby preventing us from bouncing around the gallery like blonde-haired ping-pong balls.   In nearly four years of sporadic interpretation at three different zoos and aquariums, I have never seen another parent duplicate this trick.

            Then you have the parents who don’t make any attempt to keep up with their kid, or who view the touch tank as some kind of on-premises babysitting service.   Which is absolutely, totally fine with some kids – like the teenage girl whose mom spent twenty minutes in the aviary photographing the puffins – you could almost see her ‘Uncool Parent’ meter ticking into the red zone.   Significantly less fine are the three unsupervised kids who want to climb on the fiberglass sea lion, or use the eider spotting scope to look down each other’s throats.

            What I absolutely can’t stand are the parents who actually call their own kids sissies for not wanting to touch a starfish.   Yes, some people do this, and it depresses me every time I see it happen.   I mean, it’s a starfish.  It’s only a damn starfish.   If your kid just wants to look at it, let him bloody look at it.  Or, you can grab his wrist, force your kid’s hand underwater, poke the starfish a couple of times, and tell your kid, see, that wasn’t scary at all.   I should ask the exhibits guys to make me a sign - “This aquarium encourages the use of positive reinforcement in the training of our guests.   Any parent using the words scardey-cat, sissy, or wimp will be asked to sit and look at the octopus while their child enjoys the touch tank at his or her own pace.”

            A man was at the touch tank with his son, who looked to be about seven years old.   The dad was calling his boy every name in the book trying to get him to touch one of the starfish, and the kid was standing there looking miserable.   Some kids, especially the younger ones, feel like they are perfectly justified in not wanting to touch something gooey with more tentacles than they can count.   This boy wasn’t one of those – he was very obviously scared of it, and just as obviously mortified that he was scared of it.   His dad says, if you’re going to be a pussy then we’re done here, and walks off to the other end of the gallery.    The boy is still standing there, staring at this giant purple sea star.   And I think, that bastard has set this up so that failing to touch a starfish is failing his dad.   

            So I stick my hand in the tank and start petting the starfish, and tell this boy every single comforting fact about starfish that I have learned in three years of being the touch tank lady.   He’s very soft, and because he’s so soft, we have to be gentle when we touch him.   He moves really slowly.   His mouth is on his belly, and he doesn’t have any teeth.   His favorite food is mussels.   He won’t crawl out of the tank because being out of the water isn’t good for him.   The boy asked a question (good sign) and dipped a finger in the water.   He touched the starfish, very gently, and looked at me, as though it was important that someone knew that he’d been brave.   And he had been brave – and his father wasn’t around to see it.

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