A lot of people want the children in their lives to see and interact with animals under the assumption that this will teach them to care about other living beings. But by taking kids to touch tanks, rodeos, aquariums, roadside zoos, petting zoos, and circuses that use animals—and letting them participate in activities like swimming with dolphins, taking tiger selfies, or riding elephants—what we really do is teach impressionable youngsters that animals are ours to confine and use for our own entertainment.
And that’s not what you want—is it?
If you genuinely want the kids you care about to respect animals, make sure that experiences involving animals don’t sacrifice their well-being.
So, how can kids learn about orcas without going to SeaWorld, for example? Well, there are much easier and safer—and more affordable, educational, and ethical—ways to go about it. Check out this guide to introducing kids to animals without putting either of them in harm’s way:
1. Watch Planet Earth
This show is spectacular. The video footage and the narration are mind-blowing for people of any age. Children can learn about the lives of all different types of animals, see their natural habitats and natural behavior, and marvel at their majesty—as opposed to witnessing intelligent beings languishing in zoo prisons.
2. Take a Hike!
Visit a park or forest for a hike or nature walk, where you can spot birds, bugs, squirrels, and other animals in their natural habitats—as well as different kinds of plants and flowers. #HikinAndLearnin
3. Visit a Sanctuary
Sanctuaries that offer homes for rescued pigs, cows, turkeys, and chickens are a great way for kids to learn about them. While many people interact with the dead versions of these animals on a regular basis—when they eat them—meeting these sensitive individuals when they’re alive will undoubtedly instill empathy and compassion in kids and encourage them to use critical-thinking skills.
But beware: Many tourist traps tack the word “rescue” or “sanctuary” onto their name to lure in caring people and make more money. Be sure to visit only sanctuaries that are accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries.
4. Visit a Natural History Museum
These kinds of museums teach all about animals—from their natural habitats to their evolution to their unique characteristics and quirks. There’s just no way that a kid can go to a place like this and not leave as an expert on his or her favorite animals.
5. Go to the Library
Remember books? 🙂 Reading about animals is a great way to learn about them. I once read a book called Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know that gave me way more insight on dogs’ lives than simply looking at or even meeting one ever could.
You don’t even have to go a library. Amazon has tons of books—like, pretty much all of them. One called Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish teaches much more about the inner workings of orcas’ minds and cultures than watching them rot away in a barren theme park tank ever could.
6. View Live-Streaming Video Footage From Sanctuaries
While exploitative places take your money in exchange for letting you use animals for rides or photos, accredited sanctuaries put the animals’ needs first. And some of them record the happy, protected animals thriving in a naturalistic setting—so you can observe them in real time with peace of mind because you’re not causing them to suffer.
7. Take a Glass-Bottom Boat Tour
Just because you don’t want to hook animals in the face and let them suffocate doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t get on a boat or see aquatic life. Glass-bottom boat tours allow you to look at beautiful fish who are swimming happy and free while you enjoy a nice day on the water.
8. Go Snorkeling
Going snorkeling allows you to get close (but not too close) to all kinds of aquatic life—such as starfish, turtles, fish, and even colorful coral reefs. And it’s fun for people of all ages!
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9. Visit or Volunteer at Your Local Open-Admission Animal Shelter
Not only does this give kids a chance to interact with cats and dogs who could probably use some playtime, it also gives them an opportunity to learn about the companion-animal overpopulation crisis as well as the importance of adopting animals instead of buying them from breeders, pet stores, or puppy mills.
10. Walk Your Elderly Neighbor’s Dog
This one counts for community service AND high-quality time with animals. Dogs who live with elderly guardians may not get as much exercise or time to explore as they would like, so this is a win-win situation for everyone involved—especially for kids who want to adopt a dog but aren’t allowed to.
11. Have a Picnic by a Lake
Where there are calm waters, there are usually ducks and geese. While you enjoy a nice vegan picnic, you can watch them swimming and leading their cute, fluffy babies. But it’s important not to feed them—especially not bread, which is bad for them.
Geese who are fed by humans can quickly develop “angel wing,” a condition in which their wing joints become twisted and deformed as a result of consuming too much protein and sugar (from being given processed foods, such as bread, crackers, and cereals).
12. Go to the Beach
Head over to the coast to watch for dolphins jumping. And while you’re at it, you can pick up trash! One kid and his dad even invented a sport called “trash fishing”—it’s all the fun of being out on the water, but instead of overpowering and killing animals who never did nothin’ to you, you help their ecosystem. I’m sold.
Think of it this way: Kids know more about dinosaurs than marmosets, but they’re way more likely to have seen a marmoset than a dinosaur in a zoo. Seeing animals doesn’t necessarily foster understanding, appreciation, or respect. So, make sure that when you try to teach kids about animals, you only choose from options that impart these values. And choose activities that don’t harm anyone involved.