On my 30th birthday my wonderful family gave me a gift, something that I’d wanted to do for a very long time. I’ve always dreamed of swimming with a dolphin. I remember my skin was prickling with excitement and I desperately wanted to reach out and touch it.
As a wildlife education officer I’ve touched lots of different types of animals – crocodiles, snakes and even a tiger, so perhaps I’ve been a little blasé about touching animals and making that sensory connection. The difference this time was that I’d desperately wanted to touch a dolphin. It was an animal I couldn’t possibly replicate the feeling of touching. You can imagine what fur feels like when you see an animal covered in fur (because you’ve touched fur before) but I’d never touched a marine mammal so couldn’t possibly know what to expect.
While participating in the experience it occurred to me that children feel the same excitement I felt, but they feel it all the time for each animal. They want to feel its body covering and connect with the animal because many haven’t touched animals as much as we have. Children long to feel the animal’s fur, feathers and scales under their fingertips.
Dacher Keltner (The Greater Good Science Centre, 2012) says that hands are ‘our primary language of compassion, and a primary means for spreading compassion.’ Dacher was talking about the importance of human to human contact. I‘d say this is the same for humans touching animals.
There have been many studies that have shown significant benefits to children having pets. Not only does it help a child socially and emotionally but it also builds empathy towards animals in general. I think having the opportunity to touch wildlife as much as possible is just as important for the child as it is for the future of wild animals.
So, parents, I have a challenge for you and your children this new year. I’d like you relish in one of the most important senses – touch. Go out of your way to touch an animal that you’ve wanted to touch for as long as you can remember. Ignite that excitement for touching animals in you, like when you were a child, and provide that same opportunity for your children.
Of course there are limitations on animals that you can touch. Go to the zoo and find out how you can touch an animal you’ve longed to touch (be that having to fundraise for that experience) then it’s worth it for you and your children.
My one wish is that my children could have enjoyed the dolphin experience too. Although I can’t give my three girls a dolphin experience just yet, I will be making more effort to go to zoo and get more hands on this year!
What a nature-related goal you have for your children this year? What animal do you desperately want to touch?