DEAR DR. FOX: I read with interest your article on fish cruelty, and it brought to mind our experiences with fish in the Florida Keys.
When my son was 8 years old, we lived on a canal about 14 miles north of Key West. In our canal lived several schools of fish. One school composed of French grunt, mangrove snapper and several other varieties became very tame, and recognized us. They would jump out of the water and even take food from our hands. My son could lay his hand in the water and one of the fish would lie in it, even when he raised his hand above the water! The fish would lie perfectly still until lowered back into the water.
Wherever we swam in the canal, the school went with us, always surrounding us. Other people would want to feed them or make them do tricks, but the fish did not respond to any of them -- showing us they knew one person from another. I know firsthand that fish have intelligence and feelings, and I hate that others might not have the chance to have the experiences we did.
I have always had a love for animals, birds and insects. When I go into the Everglades, I can get wildlife to come to me -- even insects. Lubber grasshoppers will come when I talk to them, and lizards will also stop and listen. I wish that others would take the time to appreciate the world and its creatures. -- J.W., West Palm Beach, Florida
DEAR J.W.: I know some people will call your communication with other animals delusional, sentimental claptrap, and I pity them -- and anyone else who treats fellow creatures as mere objects. Indeed, when we are quite still around them, most animals will lose their fear, ignore us and get on with their business. They may even show some curiosity and approach us.
To keep animal encounters safe, parents and teachers should provide children with a knowledge of which local species might be dangerous. Make sure they know that many animals have a "flight distance" -- in other words, an invisible circle around them which, if you enter, they will likely flee. Even closer to an animal is the "critical distance," wherein they may attack, or freeze and play dead like an opossum.
How wonderful it can be when wild animals trust us, like the fish with your son! He, no doubt, grew from this communion into a more respectful and compassionate adult than those denied such experiences and parental example. Read on for more thoughts on animals' roles in children's education.
DEAR READERS: Various animal species are still kept in cages and aquariums in schools across the country -- a culturally condoned practice that calls for ethical reexamination. It also raises health concerns, as per the CDC's post entitled "Animals in Schools and Daycares" (visit cdc.gov/healthypets/specific-groups/schools.html).
In a section about preventing the spread of germs in classrooms, the CDC states: "Do not bring reptiles, amphibians, poultry, rodents or ferrets into schools, daycare centers, or other settings with children under 5 years of age."
In 2019, the American Humane Association, the Human-Animal Bond Research Institute and the Pet Care Trust released their "Pets in the Classroom" study. The study's findings suggest that utilization of classroom pets in third and fourth grade U.S. classrooms appears to hold significant benefits for children's social, behavioral and academic development.
I do not doubt these findings, but I do call for alternatives. For humane, ethical and health reasons, no live animals should be kept in classrooms.
Instead, I would love to see every grade-school class given a selection of photos or videos of local animal species, both predators and prey. Students could choose their favorite from each category -- an animal with whom they felt some affinity, awe, affection or wonder. A classroom vote would determine the top choices overall, with these animals becoming the class mascots or icons! Students would then learn all about these animals' behavior, life cycle, ecological importance and conservation status. This would help integrate humane education with ecology and environmental protection.
I also applaud the animal shelters, zoos and wildlife rescue organizations that bring healthy animals to classrooms to tell their stories. It takes some organizational effort, but classroom visits to local wildlife preserves, where children can examine pond and soil life under a microscope, can help them think about and respect other species -- plant, animal and microscopic. Ecology-themed summer camps can do the same.
A new world can open to us when we connect with another species. By "connect," I mean experiencing a spiritual kinship, awe, delight, sympathy or affection -- some special affinity. This is a process all parents should help facilitate as a critical aspect of child development and socialization.
(Send all mail to email@example.com or to Dr. Michael Fox in care of Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106. The volume of mail received prohibits personal replies, but questions and comments of general interest will be discussed in future columns.
Visit Dr. Fox’s website at DrFoxOneHealth.com.)