A couple years ago, I met this amazing kid. As I finished a lecture on wildlife for the local public library, a fourth grader named Isaac walked up and delivered a barrage of obscure, but to my knowledge, accurate facts about elephants, king cobras, anacondas, and other animals. I noticed that his information all related to animals of exotic lands such as Mozambique, Sri Lanka, and Brazil, and he failed to mention even one animal species native to the U.S. He apparently had learned much of this information by watching nature programs on T.V.
I have come to the realization that many "Discovery Channel" and "Animal Planet" addicts I've met aren't always aware of the cool animals that live in their own communities. TV programs and web sites are effective tools for environmental education (and I commend those who create them) but if you are learning about nature, by watching someone else's experiences on a video monitor, than you probably aren't spending enough time in the woods.
Those of us who are lucky enough to live in the southeastern U.S. occupy a region that is absolutely steeped with biodiversity. This area is one of the most biologically rich and diverse regions on earth, yet our school children often spend more time studying the rainforests of the Amazon than they do learning their local habitats. I'm not suggesting that research and education about the other parts of the world are not essential, but let's make sure that we also appreciate our native surroundings. The realization that all life and all habitats are ultimately connected is often difficult to fathom. In order for people to make sound ecological decisions, it is critical that they understand that what they do in our own communities ultimately affects other parts of the world as well.
One of my favorite quotes is from L.B. Sharp whom many regard as the father of outdoor education. This pioneer and strong advocate of environmental education wrote "Don't try to bring the whole world into the school. Rather, take the children out to where the world is. On the way to and from school, our youth pass by the very things they go into the classroom to study about"
The world is a different place than it was when I was a kid. Maybe we just didn't have as many scheduled activities to do in those days. I remember my brother Mike and me spending an entire day dissecting a coconut in our Miami FL. yard, pausing only to chase the same brown anoles across the top of our Hibiscus hedge. These pursuits may seem a bit mundane compared to a video game where an entire empire might be saved in a single session, but we were pretty content those days.
Today, with hundreds of channels to watch and a pile of DVDs or video games at any child's disposal, it takes a special, motivated child to start an insect collection or keep a life list of local bird species. Children have an array of electronic images and sounds at their fingertips. In contrast, I remember waiting for weeks to watch a certain National Geographic special on animals or getting pumped up the day Wild Kingdom was on.
Rather than satisfy my curiosity about the natural world, these infrequent shows inspired me to explore my local natural world, to see what I could discover on my own. Now with 24 hours of animal programming to fill, and lots of competition from the other hundreds of channels (and the Internet) some nature shows have been forced to "raise the bar" so to speak. Newer shows require the host to "wrestle" animals and catch them, often for no apparent reason. A reptile show is not perceived as exciting unless the host is nearly maimed or bitten by a dangerous animal.
I am so glad I got the opportunity to talk to a remarkable kid like Isaac and listen to his stories and facts about the natural world. I let him know how impressed I was with his extensive knowledge of animals from foreign lands. I pointed out that we had one of only two venomous mammals in the whole world in our own county. I mentioned that the biggest turtle in the world occasionally nests on our state's beaches. I discussed some of the techniques we have used to capture and study alligators and the use of radio telemetry to monitor snake populations in the local woods. He seemed pretty excited after our discussion and vowed to continue his own studies. He seems like the kind of kid who will develop a knowledge base about local species to complement his extensive knowledge of exotic fauna. This understanding might just foster a bit of ownership and responsibility for the habitats these animals represent. I bet next year when I give a similar lecture, Isaac will come up and tell me some facts about animals in his country, his state, and his very own backyard.