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Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Understand. Love. Conserve. Maybe Not in that Order

"In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught."

I'm sure that he's a really great guy, and he certainly could turn a heck of a good phrase.  But I'm sick of Baba Dioum.

Who is Baba Dioum?  I have only the foggiest idea.  He's a Senegalese forester and conservationist.  What I do know about him, besides that, is that he is responsible for one of the most enduring conservation quotes in the history of the world.  You've probably seen it before.  I have never, ever been to a zoo or aquarium and not encountered this quote somewhere.  On a piece of signage.  Tucked away in a brochure or pamphlet.  In some cases, scrawled on walls in letters a foot high.

I don't think I've ever had a conversation with a bunch of zoo educators without someone squawking it like a parrot.

It shouldn't bug me so much, but it does, and for one simple reason.  I think it's wrong.  Backwards.

I love animals, and I want to conserve them.  I also study them in great detail.  But the thing is, I don't love them because I've studied them.  I study them because I love them.  Growing up, I would go to the zoo or aquarium, and see, on every visit, something that would stay with me.  An animal I'd never encountered before, maybe had never even heard of.  Maybe it would be a behavior I'd never seen - I remember being fascinated once by watching a hippo waddle up to the edge of its pool and... take a drink.  I don't know why, but the sight of an animal that normally spent almost all of its time immersed in water taking a drink really intrigued me.  Or maybe it would just be a special encounter with an animal.  A tiger resting right up alongside the window, and then turning and looking at me briefly.  Something as simple as that.


Then I'd go home and grab the books and start reading (this was before internet was a thing, mind you), until my parents told me it was time for dinner and (if it was during the school year) reminded me that I had plenty of actual homework as it was and to get started on that at some point.

The educators and keepers who croak the Baba Dioum quote at the drop of a hat, however, just irk me for some reason.  They seem to think that enough facts will carry the day and make people love nature.  To me, it seems to downplay the emotional, visceral, and very real connection that you have to establish between visitors and animals first.

You can rattle off enough if you like and see if you make a difference.  Tell a North Carolina farmer what the average home range size is for a pair of red wolves, or how they differ from gray wolves and coyotes, or what their average litter size is.  See if they care.  But let their children hear red wolves howling to the moon, or maybe catch an intimate glimpse of a pair at a zoo tending to a riotous mob of pups - picture the kids whispering back and forth with their parents, trying to guess which adult is the mommy and which is the daddy - and then you've got the foundations for something that'll last.

Facts are useful things.  They are the bricks of which knowledge is built.  But it doesn't matter how sturdy your knowledge is if the foundation that it is built on is weak.  And, as much as some of my colleagues in education may hate to admit it, that foundation is caring.

So maybe Baba should have said, "In the end we will only conserve what we understand.  We will only understand what we love."

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