Opinion » Bill Cope

The Kid Whisperer

And all things great and small

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Whether it's a good idea or not, my daughter has gotten herself a job. A month away from turning 17, she's plenty old enough to decide for herself if she can juggle school and work, even though she's not nearly old enough for me to stop worrying if she's made the right decision. (I'm hoping she reaches that magical age of no parental panic sometime before I die. It would be so nice to have a couple of worry-free years, wouldn't it?)

We've told her from the beginning: School comes first. She has her eyes set on college, and she's long understood the relationship between good grades, college acceptance, and the scholarship assistance she will likely need to help pay for it all.

But then, if she keeps her job all the way through high school, that too would pay for a significant hunk of college--yes? But then, if her grades suffer as a result of her job, it won't matter if she's stashed away a bunch of college money, will it? What a conundrum. I tell you, if it were any kind of work other than what she's doing, I believe I would have pulled the emergency brake on this horse before it ever left the barn.

The job is tending to the needs of animals in a pet retail joint. She cleans the cages of hamsters and ferrets, cockatiels and skinks. She fishes fishies out of fish tanks for fish aficionados and feeds feeder rodents. She's only been at it for two weeks, and she's already been nipped by a maternally protective rat, snapped at by a cranky bearded dragon, roughed up by a rogue gerbil, and she loves it. It is her dream job come true. From the time she learned the difference between "C-A-T" and "D-O-G," she's wanted to work in God's glorious creaturedom in some way, and she's never lost that focus. When she goes to college, her intention is to enter the field of wildlife biology so that she can spend her entire life tending to the needs of animals in one capacity or another.

The decision to involve herself in the welfare of animals is one I don't worry myself about. I am content with her choice, and I can only support and encourage her pursuit of it. It is among the most noble of professions, the welfare of animals, and no matter which direction her studies take her, I'm confident there will be plenty of work to be done.

But I can't take any credit for her choice of futures. I didn't suggest it to her or help her choose. It's nothing that would have occurred to me. I belong to a generation that, except for a handful of dedicated and passionate advocates, has all but given up on the welfare of animals. I belong to that generation which, time after time, has shown it prefers self-indulgence over a healthy environment. Hummers over habitat. Oil over otters. Condos over condors. It's so utterly depressing to think about what is becoming of our biosphere that, by and large, the generation I belong to tries not to think about it.

My daughter, on the other hand, belongs to the generation that grew up watching Steve Irwin. And there's the difference, right there. She belongs to a generation that grew up thinking about it.

Steve doesn't get all the credit for my girl's dreams. Jeff Corwin was there, too, in the afternoons after school, filling her head with the thrill of a face-to-face encounter with fauna. And the crazy Kratt brothers on PBS, scrambling around like wild monkeys, showing kids how wild monkeys scrambled. And of course, there is the ever-reliable Jake Hanna, who loves his bestial buddies so much he stammers when he tries to describe how wondrous they are.

Gerald Durrell had a hand in it, too. Among the first mature books she read were Durrell's chronicles of preserving animals in Africa. And some credit must go to all those dog and pony stories she read along the way. Balto, Black Beauty, and the like.

But I firmly believe Steve, that exuberant Aussie man-child, was the clincher, and I suspect a lot of modern kids are thinking about a career in wildlife biology because of him. Young people are attracted to passion. You could spend a decade trying to tell a youngster how critical this-or-that critter is to this-or-that ecology, how distinctive it's camouflage might be, how it eats such-and-such and poops such-and-such and comes out only at night or hunts during the day and how there are only 14 of them left on Earth because somebody decided to build a city on their nesting grounds or how species are going extinct at a rate matched only by the Great Meteor Slap-Down 100 million years ago. But when Steve picked up one viper at a time, or pulled a wounded koala out of a tree, or tackled an errant emu, or threw a half-nelson on a sick saltie, he cut straight to the heart of the matter--the animal, itself. It wasn't just that he loved life, he loved each and every life. "TIKE A LOOK AT THIS BYEWDEE, WOULDJA? WHAD A LITTLE RIPPAH!"

Small kids generally need no outside influence to make them cherish animals. It comes as naturally as curiosity and only later on do we smother it with indifference and selfishness. Not so long ago, Steve Irwin would have been considered an aberration for his wild exuberance, for his inability to leave childish passions behind and act like a serious adult.

But something has changed. There is a shift taking place. In the last few decades, we have witnessed a personal involvement in the lives of struggling creatures like no time before, I think because we've finally come to realize how little time is left. More and more people now take the care to see that a bird's broken wing has a chance to heal, or a sea turtle hatchling might make it to the safety of the surf, or an otter's coat is cleaned of Exxon oil, or a wolf might run again free on wolf land. More people now see animals not as a herd or a gaggle, a pack or a flock, but as individuals with as much claim to a legitimate place on the planet as us. I've heard the phenomenon described scornfully as the "Disney-fication of wildlife," but that's only a method the people who don't give a damn about animals use to dismiss those who do. At one time, that would have worked, but no more.

Steve will be missed, certainly, but he will also be replaced. His students are growing up and finding their life's work. It will soon be their job to make an urban, crowded mess of humanity understand that a world without crocodiles--or lemurs or penguins or wallabies or venomous puff adders or huge ugly tarantulas or manta rays--is as unthinkable as a world without ... well, without Steve Irwin.