When I was an educator specialist teaching the public about marine life, I was often asked what I considered back then to be the most annoying question of all: WHY?
“Why is the polar bear sleeping?”
“Why are the dolphins playing in the deep water and not coming over?”
“Why did the stingray splash me?”
“Why are the seals hanging out in the moat area, out of the water?”
“Why are the penguins swimming around so fast, chasing each other?”
“Why are the whales hanging out in a spot where we can’t see them?”
“Why is the walrus…?” (I can’t mention what the walrus was doing, it’s NSFW)
I disliked these questions because the only real answer I had rarely satisfied the guest’s curiosity. And when I couldn’t satisfy a guest’s curiosity with my knowledge on animal behavior, I didn’t feel I could instill a sense of awe and wonder. In fact, I might turn them away from learning more about ocean wildlife and sparking an interest in conservation.
But the truth is there was only one answer…”Because they can.” It sounded like a smart ass response, but I truly never meant it that way (well, mostly never meant it that way).
This was my scientific observation. There was no real reason for the penguins to chase each other through the water. The penguins did it because they had the physical ability to swim fast, and they had the space to do it, too.
The stingrays also had lots of space to swim, even a large space in the center of the pool where no one could reach them if they didn’t want to be touched. It might not even have been a feeding time, when sometimes a child reaches the fish into the water and pulls it out at the last moment, causing a splash. I could answer that question. But with no fish, and no real reason to splash the guests, my only observation I could muster was “because they can.”
The animals had the physical ability and the opportunity to do the behaviors we questioned day in to day out. They did these odd activities– at least odd to us– because they can.
Because We Allow It
As I’ve matured, and realizing how much of a smart ass I was presenting myself when I said, “Because they can,” I looked for another answer. Another way of saying “because they can” but without the haughtiness.
I found my answer when I was a Nature Engagement Specialist at Northwest Trek. After doing an entire Wild Drive tour and literally only seeing the black-tailed deer and the bison (way way way in the distance, barely visible), my guests thanked me for my information but asked why we didn’t see more animals. I thought about my response, and replied, “Because we allow them to go where they want to go, and allow them to do what they want to do.” As disappointing as it was to not see the animals, the guests didn’t complain up front (I admit I was surprised, because even I wanted to complain to someone…). They had spent $80 and not seen any of the animals they had hoped to, but no one complained. My only guess as to why was they respected the philosophy that we allowed our animals to do what they wanted to do, not be at our beckoning call.
I now get these “why” questions now that I’m back in the zoo field as an animal keeper. The elephant exhibit is not far from the sun bear exhibit, and so during our elephant encounters (keeper talk), I am frequently asked why the guests couldn’t see the sun bear. I always let the guests know that sun bears are very small bears, about the size of a Labrador dog. They have a fairly spacious exhibit for such a small animal, and many places to hide, like caves, bushes, and enrichment items like big boxes. I tell visitors that we allow the bears to hide because it’s one of their natural behaviors, and because it helps them be more comfortable. We allow them to be sun bears.
At the elephant encounter, recently our elephants have been taking their hay as soon as we feed them, away from the visitors and to a shady spot to eat. It does make for shorter talks, because the elephants aren’t close by to entice guests to stick around, but it does lead to a few “why” questions. This one is a lot easier to answer, logistically. The spot where we feed the girls is in the direct sun, and it’s a bit warm here, so the elephants take their food to a more comfortable shady spot. But the deeper answer is because we ALLOW them to do it. In the old days, in free contact, we wouldn’t allow the elephants to leave until we were done. Nowadays, they have the choice to stick around, or leave, or come and go. Yesterday, they ate their hay in the shade but then came right back over to interact with us once again. It felt great that the elephants CHOSE to interact with us, not because they had to, but because they WANTED to. It’s because we allow them to do what makes them happy, comfortable, and safe.
I like that zoos are moving toward this philosophy of allowing the animals to be animals, to be a little more hands off in terms of making the animals do our will. They have more freedom, even in confined spaces as zoos tend to be. The elephants don’t have hundreds of miles to roam, but they do have plenty of space to be themselves, and do activities that bring them joy.
Why Do People Do This?
On October 25, we had yet another mass shooting here in the United States. There was nothing “special” about this one, 18 people died, a dozen injured. The suspect is still at large at the time of this writing. Man with an assault rifle came into a bowling alley during a youth bowling league practice and open fired. Same story, different day, different city.
As I shook my head, and read the story of the 565th mass shooting this year alone (don’t worry, we still have 2 months to surpass the 2021 record of 686 mass shootings in one year), I sometimes feel if there is ANYTHING I can do about this. Vote the idiots that are bought out by the NRA out of office? Protest (and hope I don’t get shot)? Thoughts and prayers?
While reading one of the articles, a statement popped out at me. One of the youth practicing at the bowling alley was grazed by a bullet. She is ten-years-old. Her question was simple: “Why do people do this?”
I sighed. I know the answer, but it isn’t satisfying:
Because they can…because we keep allowing it to happen.