Friday, May 1, 2009

Animals and Insects?

I’ve always been amused by the phrase “men, women, and children.” Are children a different gender? I can still vividly recall an exchange I had with a couple that revealed we are also collectively prone to consider insects outside the boundaries of the rest of the animal kingdom.

The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden was hosting an evening gala to celebrate the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, held in the Queen City that year. The majority of guests were VIPs of one sort or another. During such events, the staff of the insectarium sometimes circulated with a “bouquet” of walkingstick insects acting as ambassadors of the arthropod fauna exhibited at the zoo. Other keepers paraded around with more cute and cuddly creatures. That evening was no exception.

One gentleman approached me wondering who the flowers were for. I pointed out the large, camouflaged insects, and he was incredulous.

”That’s an animal?” he asked in disbelief.

”Yes, sir” I replied. He beckoned his wife over.

”Honey, come take a look at this.” She dutifully inspected the floral arrangement as her husband gestured toward the walkingsticks.

”Oh, my!” she said, with more fascination than fear in her voice.

”That’s an insect?” she inquired.

”Yes, ma’am” I respectfully concurred. Her husband was taken aback.

”But you just told me that’s an animal!”

That night I learned the true depth of public ignorance about insects. It is not necessarily a failing of John or Jane Doe, either. This gentleman was obviously successful, probably wealthy, and no doubt well-educated, too. No, this kind of misunderstanding represents a failure of educators to properly communicate the very basics of the natural world. It also represents the abdication of responsibility of the media to balance truth with sensationalism and fear-mongering.

Educators need more informal platforms for interpreting the natural world for the public and promoting "nature literacy." We need professional educators, too, not just volunteers and docents. This continues to be a low priority at museums, zoos, nature centers, even national and state parks. Most naturalists I know are behind a desk pushing papers, and training docents to do the public relations.

Meanwhile, pest control services, and the manufacturers of pesticides, capitalize (quite literally) on the lack of public knowledge about insects and arachnids, and their place in the natural world. Truth in advertising appears to be nearly non-existent in most television commercials promoting the latest product or treatment.

Hm-m-m-m, maybe I’ll approach the Ad Council and ask for “equal time.”

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