9 min read

A Petting Zoo Visited My Son's School And I Stopped Being Silent

<p><a href="http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:USMC-120412-M-GL246-009.jpg" target="_blank">Wikimedia Commons</a> / Public domain</p>

Why do we work so hard to end a child's innate compassion? Kids aren't born wanting to eat animals, wear fur, watch donkey basketball games, and see dolphins do stupid tricks. We teach them that those things are okay, necessary even. It's a cycle that can only be stopped by those of us who know better and take action.

My kid recently finished 100 days of kindergarten and while his school is great and filled with support from lovely families, I've noticed some things that I imagine are standard operating procedure for schools everywhere, but actually kind of suck. There aren't any vegan lunch options, the cafeteria is plastered with "Got Milk?" posters (Note to self: Email a soy milk company and ask about posters) and I recently found out that the first grade classes had animals schlepped over from the local zoo. On two separate days, at $150 a pop, a petting zoo came to my son's elementary school.

The Oakland Mobile Zoo (it's a petting zoo, people, call it what it is) will bring a chinchilla, a hedgehog, a snake and a bearded dragon to your child's classroom so the children can "learn about the animals." What do they learn? How to terrify a bearded dragon? How a hedgehog doesn't behave in the wild? To respect and appreciate wild animals?

Naively, I thought my progressive Bay Area was devoid of this kind of thing. When I asked the school receptionist how this was funded, she said through school-wide fundraisers and acted like I was nuts for expressing my disapproval! The petting zoo visit was paid for in part, with money I contributed. That horrifies me. She suggested I talk to the first grade teachers, all four of them. So I wrote the principal.

I'm sure these petting zoos go to schools everywhere, just like needlessly dissecting animals happens in science classes all over (By the way: the National Science Teachers Association and the Human Anatomy and Physiology Society approve of virtual dissection kits as replacements for animal dissection). But before you are complaisant and don't want to be a pain in the ass, or think using animals in schools actually is educational, think about what is going. Does it teach your child something that is worth the fear or death of animal? Does a field trip to the circus to see elephants painfully balance on step stools teach kids anything positive? If not, and it doesn't, then speak up. Let's let the kids keep their compassion for as long as possible. Be outspoken. Take 10 minutes to write a letter, ask questions, talk to a teacher. If you don't, the cycle continues.

Here is my letter, followed by the principal's reply. Please use it if you need to. I'm very happy with the response I received and I'll be following through with his suggestions. I'll let you know how it goes!

Moral of the story: If something doesn't feel right, never be silent!

Feb. 5, 2015
Dear Principal [XXX]:
My name is Tiffany and my son Ezekiel is in Ms. [XXX]'s kindergarten class. I was shocked and saddened to hear that the first grade classes paid $150 to have the Oakland Zoo bring animals to our school this week.

Animals used in the entertainment industry, including "petting zoos," are deprived of everything that is natural and important to them. They live in perpetual states of confinement, discomfort, and stress; they are carted from one event to the next, and subjected to a constant barrage of strange noises, activity, and people trying to touch them. They often become despondent, and develop neurotic and self-destructive behaviors including pacing, rocking, swaying, bar-biting, and self-mutilation. Instinctual needs, such as seeking mates, raising young, and grazing are completely thwarted. Also, these animals pose a definitive risk to public health as they can transmit numerous diseases to humans such as rabies, salmonellosis, sarcoptic mange, and ringworm.

By supporting "petting zoos" and other businesses that exploit animals for entertainment, schools send students the dangerous message that it's okay to take advantage of those who are weaker than us. There are plenty of fun and entertaining activities you can bring to school events that will promote kindness rather than callousness, and won't harm any animals.

Might [XXX] Elementary School commit to leaving "petting zoos" out of its plans for future activities, and instead choose an alternative that does not involve animals?

Thank you for reading and for your compassion.

For the animals,

His reply:

Hi Tiffany,

Thank you for sharing your perspective on this issue. Personally, I have a hard time with zoos because it breaks my heart to see animals enclosed and not within their natural environment.

I will pass your email along to the first grade teachers so they are aware of your perspective. I will also direct you to our PTA president, Jenny [XXX], who may be able to work with you in making this viewpoint known. She may be able to arrange for you and some other parents to speak to this issue so that [XXX] community can come to an agreement on how we will all move forward.

Again, thank you for your passion and the courage to share your perspective.

Best regards,
Principal [XXX]

A hero often is not an extraordinary person but rather an ordinary person choosing to do extraordinary things.