Chance Ruder is a nine year old from Texas who doesn't sugar-coat his objections to the downplaying of death and devastation that society casually imparts to children. In speaking events across the country he discusses wildlife and habitat loss and the controversy regarding the covering up of the issues to protect our youth. One of his upcoming speeches is reprinted below.
(to be presented at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Docents national convention in Houston, September 2003)
Many do not expect to see a child speaking, but that is exactly why I do. To share a kid's perspective on the issue of educating kids about endangered species and wildlife in general.
I read a paper published last year about educating children about endangered species that saddened and worried me. The author suggested that children should not be educated about endangered species because it's scary for us and because she felt that we don't really "get it." I can't agree.
I am not a doctor and I did not go to college and study how kids think, but I am a kid and I play with them at recess every day and they are in my scout group and on my soccer and swim teams.
I say that children DO get it. We do understand loss and we understand the permanence of extinction. Not only that, but some of us realize that we are the ones who have to live the longest with the decisions that are being made right now regarding nature. The scary part isn't what you tell us, it's what you don't tell us.
I think that we are an important part of species survival. We are part of the answer. But we need to know the truth about endangered species if we are going to find solutions to problems.
WHAT KIDS KNOW AND HOW THEY LEARN
A. It is true that we kids learn by helping nature:
Helping nature through projects teaches us that we can be part of the answer. We can plant trees and adopt animals at the zoo and do recycling projects learn lots of things and this is how most grownups teach us. You help us to build birdhouses, bat houses and pine cone bird feeders all the time. These things are great and I support these projects. But building bird houses is only part of learning. We can't stop there when it comes to experiencing nature and helping wildlife.
B. We learn best by experiencing nature in our hearts. This is where our natural education usually takes a detour. We kids need to touch, smell, feel and cry on behalf of nature. Yes cry. Please don't protect us from this. Conservation is a matter of the heart. It is more than knowing the science; it is something that comes in a language that has no words. At SeaWorld, we quote an African Naturalist who once said, "For in the end, we will conserve only what we love, we love only what we understand, and we understand only what we have been taught." Sometimes we kids are taught best by seeing stuff through the wild eyes of the animal world and making a connection as humans.
Ever since I was really young I have had a deep passion for animals. Right after I turned 5, I started working with a raptor rehabilitation center. During the three years that I studied and worked there, I did just about everything involved in raptor work. With my mentor, I helped with hawk rescues, eagle transports, rehabilitation of injured animals, diagnosis of birds and even postings, (autopsies) of the unfortunate ones that did not make it. Just about every weekend we did educational raptor demonstrations for schools and the public.
I remember one day at the bird facility; we had to post 3 birds that were brought into the center already dead. You have to check them and find out why they died because raptors are an indicator species and that's one way we find out what's going on in the environment. We had a hawk that flew into a cactus and I found the spines stuck in its organs. We had a Sharp Shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus) that got hit by a car and it died instantly. And we got this really pretty Barred Owl (Strix varia). It was so beautiful I couldn't even tell it was dead until I realized its body was limp.
Have you ever looked into the spirit-less eyes of a Barred Owl who was instantly killed by flying into the glass window of a house that had just been built right in the middle of its habitat? I have and I was not even 6 yet.
I remember the day we cut that bird open to perform its posting like it was yesterday. I remember it so well because that's the day I made a big connection. I knew that I had to help save habitats. I knew that if I loved that Barred Owl as much as I thought I did, then I knew that I had to care about where it lives. You don't have to be a grownup to know that there is something wrong when a perfect bird dies like that. In a moment that seemed like an eternity, human population and habitat destruction and urban sprawl became a very real problem to me. I was almost 6. It didn't scare me. It motivated me. We kids do get it but you have to give us a chance to see the truth.
Experience on a heart level- not just building a birdhouse, but really getting our hands dirty and getting close to the problem, impassions us kids. That's how we learn what the real problems are for wildlife. For some of us, that's how we begin to think of ways to solve the problems we will face in the future.
I know that there are rules about kids and animals. We aren't allowed to do and touch a lot of stuff (and I don't always agree with that) but I have always been lucky enough to have mentors who found a way to get me close enough to feel nature in my own heart. And that is when I feel my future and the future of this earth. People who do this for kids are our best teachers.
We kids can put ourselves in animals' place and see through their eyes. Maybe it's a little scary and it's very sad, but without knowing what it's like to be the animals, we'll never grow up to care enough about solving the problems they face. And we all know that their problems will eventually become our problems. That's why experiencing nature is so important.
READY? GET SET! GO WHERE?
If you are going to see kids someday fix the problems that endangered species face, then we need to be prepared.
I am the only one here who can say this from my side of time: When I grow up, I want to be prepared for my own future. I want to know how much work is ahead of me. My future and every kid's future are linked to nature. It's our quality of life. It's our link to God. We are impoverished without nature. There isn't enough time in one day to explain all the reasons for why we need animals and why kids should begin thinking about these things now.
TO TELL THE TRUTH OR NOT?
It's been asked of me: What is scarier? To find out the awful truth that there are endangered species in the world while I am still young; That the cute little ocelot at the zoo is one of only a handful left in the world? Or is it worse to grow up, and know nothing about the world's wildlife woes until I am an adult? And then be expected to fix it?
I stand and make a torrid appeal to educators on behalf of children and wildlife: Please tell us the problems now so that we are ready for the task we face.
Children like me do not want to grow up and find out all of a sudden it is up to us to save wildlife and habitats. By then it is too late. By then we have chosen other educational paths, we have debts to pay, children to raise and corporate ladders to climb. But if you will educate us honestly and truthfully while we are still young, we will have the time to make life choices that change the tide of environmental disasters like the ones that ALMOST occurred when two teachers at my school planned to release unwanted classroom pets such as exotic African leopard frogs and African clawed frogs in a San Antonio river. With the truth about endangered species, we can begin our impact now, and continue to grow toward the future.
In Spiderman, Peter's uncle said something cool. "With great power comes great responsibility."
I began to think about how this applies to nature and kids. I say, "With great knowledge comes great responsibility." Knowledge plus wisdom equals power. Docents have both power and responsibility.
Robert F. Kennedy spoke these words in 1968: "This World demands the qualities of youth; not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease.... It is young people who must take the lead."
We kids can't take the lead if we aren't properly prepared. We can't take the lead if the truth is sugar coated. Children do need to know about endangered species and all the reasons that brings an animal to the point of extinction. That is the only way we can lead the next generation.
Leaders come in all kinds of commitment levels- from the weekly meeting to the occasional email. All of them count. When everyone works together, we kids can hear bad news about the environment and know that we are not alone in our fight to save even the most endangered species. This is how we learn. This is what we need. Which level of commitment to a child will you choose?
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