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Inviting the wilderness in
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Inviting the wilderness in
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Inviting the wilderness in
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Articles
15 February 2017

Inviting the wilderness in

When it comes to nature, we should revive our child-like curiosity and courage—not be afraid of it.

Written by Rachel Lowry

This story originally ran in issue #43 of Dumbo Feather

Over the past 12 years, I’ve had the privilege of watching thousands of children respond to wildlife. More often than not, they approach our feathered, scaly and furry friends with open hearts, open minds and a keen desire to get closer and learn absolutely everything about them. Whilst teaching a kinder class at Werribee Open Range Zoo once, I had a child ask me whether the carpet python I was caring for had a best friend. When I explained that they prefer to live alone, he asked if I’d like to invite him to his house for dinner some time. In my experience, children are naturally empathetic when it comes to wildlife, and surprisingly, despite no shortage of warnings from adult companions, many appear to be fearless.

Then, as children get older, a healthy sense of caution develops. Less time is spent interacting with the animal world in that joyful, curious way. The consequences of this are big and far-reaching. As I write, the world is losing species to human-induced extinctions at an unprecedented speed, with Australia experiencing the highest rate of all on record. Why? In short, because many of us are becoming disconnected from nature, and making choices that change our landscape at a faster rate than many species can keep up with.

Psychologist David Sobel argues that a growing number of us are experiencing “eco-phobia,” ultimately because negative stories about the environment are outweighing our positive experiences of it. Think about the fear generated by stories of shark attacks in the news, how terrified some people become to swim in the oceans. Marry that with stories about snake bites, crocodile attacks, disease risks and pesky possums in our rooves and it’s no wonder a growing number of children are becoming increasingly cocooned in unnatural settings.

Of course, I realise there are risks with exploring nature. But I fear the risks of not embracing nature are far greater. Research tells us that “pleasant” nature-based experiences make people more reflective and cooperative, and that a connection to animals makes us more empathetic and even less prejudiced. We hear so much now about Nature Deficit Disorder and how not spending time in the natural world can be detrimental to our mental health and wellbeing. There has to be a shift in attitudes.

Earlier this year my husband and I moved to a house that connects to the Maribyrnong River in the northwest suburbs of Melbourne. As I showed family and friends our new home, it wasn’t uncommon for them to warn us against taking our three-year-old son to the river in summer because of snakes. We were also reminded to never let him play there alone because of stranger danger, and to hold his hand around the water to mitigate any risk of him drowning. One person even suggested he wear a helmet whilst playing in the reserve in case magpies live there.

I was surprised that not everyone could see what we could see: the potential for a childhood enriched by encountering swamp wallabies on early morning walks or by watching birds court and frogs play. Why couldn’t they see the great potential here for children to just be children?

I continue to be inspired by the staff at Zoos Victoria who work hard to create experiences that encourage people to connect with and protect the animal world. But I know that zoos cannot and will not win the fight against wildlife extinction on their own. We need our community to open their hearts and minds to our wildlife like many of us did when we were young, and we need to introduce our children to the wonders of nature whilst they’re still willing to invite solitary species around to dinner. In fact, I’m convinced that if we’re to secure a species-rich future, we need to reintroduce ourselves to nature, and play in it.

Rachel Lowry

Rachel Lowry is the director of wildlife conservation and science at Zoos Vict​oria.

Feature image by Amandine Thomas

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