DEAR ABBY: I work at a large zoo, in the children's zoo department. I cannot count the number of times I have heard parents, out of ignorance or impatience, lie to their child about the animals they are observing.
In an enclosure with several species of animal, for example, they will tell their child that pygmy species (smaller than non-pygmy when full-grown) are actually babies of large animals. I have also seen them give incorrect information about animal behavior, diet and habitat.
I want to ask these parents for something: Respect your child enough to admit that you sometimes don't know the answer to their question. If you don't know the answer, ask a keeper. We are usually on hand and never mind talking about the animals we love and interact with daily. We enjoy showing people how amazing and fulfilling these animals can be, and it pains us to hear parents provide misinformation to children. -- A KEEPER IN THE EAST
DEAR KEEPER: You have rattled the right cage. My assistant, Sherry, who is a docent at the Los Angeles Zoo, informs me that your complaint is all too common among staff at zoos.
It does a child a grave disservice to give him or her misinformation. Children are little vessels. If you fill their heads with nonsense, they'll pour it forth at a later date -– embarrassing themselves in front of friends or in the classroom, where they'll feel like idiots when it's pointed out that they are wrong.
It seems that one of the most difficult phrases in the English language for people to utter is, "I don't know." Perhaps that's because they are afraid it will make them appear stupid, so they try to fill the vacuum by saying something -– a mistake. A more constructive approach is to say, "I don't know, but I'll help you get the answer," especially when talking to a child. Nobody knows everything, and learning is most fun when it's a shared endeavor.
Zoos were created for the purpose of education, conversation, recreation and research. When visiting a zoo, if you have a question, you should ask a zookeeper or a docent, if one is provided.