14 min read

How To Raise An Animal Activist

<p> Clint Clark </p>

When my son was born my wife and I desired to be parents that empowered our children, built empathy and encouraged creativity. As a high school teacher and principal these are skills that I believe many of our outgoing graduates struggle with. Without question, the most significant empowering, inspiring, empathy builder that we have ever discovered is through wild animals. My wife and I both grew up enjoying animals, now after five years with our son and three years with our daughter we have grown to certified animal lovers.

As a father, my weakness is staying engaged in play with my young kids. The mind wanders. Whether it was a selfish motive or a happy accident, I could not get through an A-B-C animal book. The images were designed for toddlers, the facts were so basic and by page five, I was ready for my nap. A day at the library, we picked a real deal animal encyclopedia, realistic art mixed with real photos and interesting facts on each page. Hey, why can't reading time be a little more interesting for daddy? Let's just say that was the first of hundreds of animal texts that we have checked out.

How exactly can wildlife become an empowering tool? While the road certainly wasn't clear to us when our journey began, with retrospect, it is illuminating.

Photo: Clint Clark

Even though our son was two, you could also tell his preference. You couldn't slip the A-B-C animal book back into the rotation. Within weeks, he was able to start pointing out siamangs and echidnas. My wife loves, and I mean loves, reading to our kids. His (and her) animal knowledge soon would explode. Before we knew it, if he came across an animal in a book, he'd go wander back to his room; "what is he doing?" we asked. Believe it or not, he found another animal book and was bringing it out to us. He'd show us the same animal in his other book! I struggle to get my algebra students to remember content from one week to the next and our two-year old remembered, connected and transferred this seemingly innocuous info. Before too long he could remember entire pages worth of animal species - species that my wife or I had never heard of before we read that book.

Two-year-old empowerment step: I can find animal information in a book.

The animal pictures began. With an animal book at his side, he'd start trying to draw the animals with his crayons. This soon became very frustrating. He'd say that he hated it, but he wouldn't stop trying. Regardless of us trying to redirect him, he was bound, determined and usually crying. He couldn't get pictures to look the same. My wife and I would look at each other, which one of us is going to have the, "Son, you are three, its not going to look the same" conversation. Then it hit me. The fatness of the crayons was too problematic for the detail he was trying to achieve. A quick trip to the grocery store for a pack of colored pencils changed everything. Let the details begin!

Three-year-old empowerment step: I can draw animal pictures the way I want to.

Since we are fully committed to animal encyclopedias, this brought with it a few interesting connections. Many of these books include different symbols around the animals and often they represent their conservation status. Of course, to our now four-year-old this is a curious thing that he had never noticed before. We began to learn about endangered species. Before you know it, he was going back through his other books and finding out which species were endangered. The idea that an animal might die and not exist anymore, really hit him hard. While many teenagers are still considering their feelings the center of the universe, we could see elements of empathy in our four-year-old (hey, there's still plenty of egocentrism going around the house though!) Soon, he and his mom made their first (of many) endangered species flip books.

We began to let him know that there are ways to keep animal species alive. This was prime information to him. Soon we were learning about deforestation, pollution, global warming, poaching. We let him know that species are endangered because of a consequence of our human action and conservationists work to reverse the trend. Again, to him, learning about these things in isolation wasn't enough, he wanted to know which of these global issues affected which species. Each one. As you can imagine, mommy and daddy are getting way over our heads. "I don't know buddy, maybe we can look it up." became a catch phrase. As a piece of parental manipulation, we said one day that if you don't turn off your lights when you aren't using them it will waste electricity and maybe melt the polar ice caps a little bit. Today, lights are never left on. In fact, he'll make sure his new sister turns off the lights too.

What do you want to be when you grow up? "I want to go stop the poachers."

Four-year-old empowerment step: I can do something to help animals.

By now, we realize we have a little activist on our hands. As a teacher at an international school, I have worked intimately with global issues. Soon, all those beautiful maps in those info-packed animal encyclopedias began to be used. Continents and oceans soon turned into countries and regions. The first time I saw him point and name "Patagonia" I about fell over. He'd then tell me some of the animals that live there. He began being able to do this all over the map.

In our most dumbfounding moment, we were eating dinner and he wouldn't eat the rest of a piece of broccoli. Why, you ask? Because it looked like the Island of Sulawesi (home of the babirusa and cuscus!) I have to Google this info, because this is clearly something that mommy has read while daddy was at work. Sure enough, well here's the evidence:

Photo: Clint Clark

We are slowly working on culture, history and current issues in different parts of the world - that affect animals of course!

Now at age five, we began to see those cute brother/sister interactions. He began telling her about some animals. Car rides will never be the same again.

"What kind of animal is that [her stuffed toy]?"
"A monkey"

"It's not a monkey because it doesn't have a tail. It's an ape. Where does it live?"
"An ape!"

"Where does it live, what continent?"
"Asia!"

"Well then it has to be a hoolock. That's the only brown ape that I can think of that lives in Asia."
"It's a hoolock!"

In our latest adventure, we have been hard at work on a card game for a few months now. Each day I come home and he rattles off a list of animals he wants to make cards for. Each card includes the animals species, diet, classification, world region and conservation status. Now we are about 250 cards in and there's still plenty he wants to do. My printer begs for mercy. He especially enjoys playing with visiting family and showing them his little project.

Yesterday, I came home to find him working hard and covering the living room floor with sheets of paper (the cover image of the article). He spent his day drawing animals and he told me he is arranging his pictures into the shape of Africa. He was trying to put the animals in the right spot. From what I can tell, it looked okay.

Five-year-old empowerment step: I can do something to teach other people about animals.

In August, he will go to Kindergarten.

With the encouragement of friends and family, Clint and the Clark Family have turned their card game Zoo Webs into a Kickstarter project that launches on March 11! The next natural empowerment step is trying to make a difference on an international platform! Click to see the fruits of their labor, follow along with Facebook or Twitter and enjoy the glide!

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