The Petting Zoo Pickle
As Easter was approaching, I was inspired to write this post because Easter provides many opportunities for people to connect with animals. I'm sure we've all seen people's pictures of their kids playing/posing with bunnies or chicks for Easter photos. And, for some reason, petting zoos are a thing for this holiday, too. On one hand, using animals as income is just a terrible idea because, oftentimes, people who profit off animals care little about the animals' well-being and more about their bottom line. On the other hand, these often provide the opportunity for people, especially kids, to spend some time around animals. Unfortunately, a lot of people think it's cute to buy bunnies or chicks for their kids for Easter and then, when the novelty wears off, those bunnies and chicks end up at a shelter or worse. But they are commitments just like dogs and cats are.
When I was younger and before I knew better, I, like most people, loved petting zoos. Who wouldn't love getting up close and personal with sweet animals?? As an adult who does know better, I absolutely hate petting zoos. Most operations that use animals as income don't necessarily think about what's best for the animals. With petting zoos specifically, they don't always care about whether the animals are fearful of human contact, and they don't always pay attention to whether the animals are being handled properly. As long as the visitors are having a good time, that's all that matters. Even though there SHOULD be more to it. All too often, it is clear to anyone paying attention that the animals would rather be anywhere else. It truly breaks my heart.
However (and it's a big however), there's a reason I don't entirely hate that they exist: the greater goal. In fact, I would call it "the great goal." The one very big goal. To get more kids (even adults) to make the connection and go vegan. To realize that these animals, usually babies, are living, breathing beings and that it's not in our nature as humans to eat them. As I've mentioned loosely in the past, true omnivores and carnivores would SALIVATE and want to eat, not cuddle or pet, the animals. But we all know that's not what really happens. We see a little animal and we immediately say "awwwwwwwwww" and want to pet the animal and we maybe even start talking in that high-pitched voice that's usually reserved for puppies. :) That's how humans react to animals.
The reason I'm writing about this "pickle" now is because our community has an annual egg hunt and petting zoo and I had to decide whether I wanted to take my baby. Now, she's only 9 months old so I knew she probably wouldn't engage with the animals, but I wanted to see if she even had any awareness of them. Of course, when I received the email about the event, my heart sank. Because I HATE petting zoos. I knew my community wouldn't cancel the event even if I made noise (maybe one day I'll sit down with the organizer and see if there's an alternative for this event), so I had to figure out how I would handle it, or any time I was presented with a petting zoo situation, really. I knew it would happen eventually. I decided to reach out to the event organizer to get the information of the petting zoo they used so I could get a sense of how they felt about their animals and just to get an overall vibe. The owner was very responsive, and she said used to rescue animals and it got too expensive and she ended up where she is. I won't bore you with the justifications, but ultimately she made me feel a little better because I got a sense that she actually cared how her animals felt. Do not get me wrong: I hate that she breeds animals for various purposes, including her petting zoo, and I started wondering, when she told me that her petting zoo animals were bottle fed, why those babies weren't with their mothers where they should be. We went back and forth a few times, and I left the exchange feeling as good as I could feel.
The day arrived and the first thing I saw when we got to the event was the petting zoo. My stomach knotted immediately. The animals were in the shade and they had water and people seemed to be behaving around them. I was uncomfortable the whole time, as I expected I would be, because I spent the whole time surveying to make sure no one was being rough with the animals or handling them improperly. All the animals looked like they were doing well. If I had seen someone being too rough or improper with the animals, I have no doubt that I would have said something. There was, however, one calf there and he or she REALLY should have been with his or her mother. The calf was TINY!! People were petting the calf and everyone was being nice, but all I could think was that this calf was too small to be away from his/her mother. In any case, my daughter wasn't even a little interested in the animals, but many kids and many adults were. I heard a lot of "they're just like puppies!"
And that's the one big goal. The great goal. The people there today surely did not go home and decide to swear off eating all animal products, but maybe seeds were planted. The reason I don't entirely hate petting zoos and why I will probably continue to allow my child to attend events where there are petting zoos (I'd never in a million years hire one myself) is because sometimes that is the only way for kids to get up close and personal with animals, to see that they really are just like puppies. Not everyone has a local sanctuary nearby, Sometimes that is the only way for people to get up close and personal with animals.
I know this will be a recurring theme over the years, because there will be LOTS of petting zoos, I'm sure, including at birthday parties. I'm trying to figure out a good strategy going forward because I know I'll allow my child to attend events where there are petting zoos. Will I always be able to contact the owner in advance? Probably not. If I could, though, would I? Yes. There is no question that I'd rather take my daughter to a sanctuary any day of the week, but I don't have one close by. There will be one a couple hours away from us called Hope Sanctuary and I plan on taking my child there as often as possible. In fact, as she gets older, I would love to visit farm animal sanctuaries in neighboring states. I think that would be really fun! Until then, however, we do what we can. I don't think I'll ever not be uncomfortable around petting zoos, but I am forcing myself to keep in mind that sometimes good things can come from it. If it means that our values are reinforced in my child every single time she interacts with an animal, it's worth it. If it means some other person (adult or child) awakens even slightly each time he or she interacts with an animal, it's worth it.