Should You and Your Kids Skip the Zoo?
by Sean Johnson
Someone told me it’s all happening at the zoo. I don’t believe it.
I know two young children between the ages of five and ten and, while it will seem that I’ve invented them for the purposes of this essay, I assure you they are real. Their names have been changed to protect the innocent (me, in this case). Let’s call them Sancho and Dulcinea, we being an optimistic people, after all. They are almost never allowed to play outside, but not for lack of opportunity—they have good-sized front and backyards, and live in a safe (read: gated) neighborhood patrolled by security guards. No, they are kept indoors by their mother for fear that they might come into direct contact with dirty, germy things; living things; unknown things.
Sancho and Dulcinea are allowed to visit the zoo, and therein lies the genius of modern parenting. There is dirt at the zoo, and animals, which helps in creating the impression of being outdoors. But the zoo is the mother-approved version of the outdoors. The living things are behind glass and the dirt is out of reach. The zoo has handrails, foot paths, and machines dispensing bottles of purified water; at the zoo (even a very good zoo), a child’s activities and destinations are carefully programmed and limited. Now, that is not to say that zoos are bad by nature. They are not. At least not for everyone.
The trouble is, for children like Sancho and Dulcinea, trips to the zoo are just inoculations against real wonder at the real natural world. Anthony Esolen argues that this sort of inoculation is one of the best ways to destroy a child’s imagination. Like Dickens’ Mr. Gradgrind, you expose them to just enough that they think they know all there is. Teach them just enough “facts” about a horse (“quadruped, graminivorous, forty teeth”) to make them believe they know what a horse is. They no longer have to wonder…or wander. If the zoo is presented as the only normal or acceptable means of interacting (and I use the word loosely) with nature, even very clever children who know a great deal about a great deal will be duped out of real exploration and improvisation, will never miss the shade of the thicket behind their house or the cool taste of the spring that runs through it (the one you can only drink from if you get your knees dirty) or the fascinating poetry of the insects that glide across the water’s surface.
To answer the question posed by my sensationalist title: of course not! The zoo is a wonderful place full of wonderful things. Zoos make possible encounters that children (and adults!) from this part of the world would never have (or survive) in their day-to-day experience. By all means pile everyone into the family car this summer and do the zoo, but make sure that day-by-day you are raising your children to understand that it is just one more adventure, and not the only adventure. As for the Sanchos and Dulcineas of the world, pray that they will eventually be overtaken by some Quixote who happily tilts at windmills or, like another pair of famous siblings, will be fortunate enough to find themselves lost in the woods.
Sean Johnson is a husband and father who spent his childhood years wading through cactus and killing rattlesnakes, and considers himself better for it. He also has great respect for Messrs. Simon and Garfunkel, and thinks that, considered in their immediate context, they were absolutely right about the zoo.