Friends on Facebook turned me on to this thoughtful article, “Look, Don’t Touch”, by David Sobel in Orion magazine. He argues that environmental education has embraced the “Leave No Trace” philosophy so wholeheartedly (in addition to the fear of litigation) that it may actually be turning kids off of nature, rather than getting them excited about it. Trees are not to be climbed for fear of falling, frogs are not to be caught for fear of injuring them and forts are not to be built because they leave evidence of human interference. Nature might as well be behind glass in a museum display and we all know how much kids love that.
When I was a child, I left a lot of traces. Which is not to say I had no respect for nature. I lived in mortal fear of accidentally littering and I developed a knack for rescuing injured wildlife- defending killdeer chicks from marauding 6th grade boys on the soccer field, bottle-feeding orphaned squirrels, etc. At age 10 I could identify more birds, mammals and tropical reef fish than most of the adults I knew, but I did not come by this knowledge by treading lightly. Many bivalves were harmed in the making of this future biologist. A favorite summer activity of mine was to hang out on the jetty at the beach, smashing mussels, tying their meat to bits of fishing line, dangling it in front of an underwater crevice and yanking up green crabs (Carcinus maenas). These were smaller, but feistier, than the showy lady crabs (Ovalipes ocellatus) which I more often found on the mud flats and carted back to the beach in buckets. I admit to torturing earthworms in my backyard, cutting them in two to marvel at how both pieces seemed to live (I now know that the tail end dies eventually.) In the spring, any skunk cabbage I found in the woods was whacked with a stick to smell the stink and I eagerly hunted, and temporarily held hostage, red efts.
Most of the field biologists I know were kids like this: caring and enthusiastic explorers who probably did some damage along the way. I think the reason that most of us are biologists is because we delight in catching and handling animals. Now we have a license to do it and it is for a good cause. If you know a wildlife biologist, ask them and I’ll bet you good money they have a collection of photos of themselves holding a variety of study organisms and grinning like kids in a candy store. I believe that knowledge brings appreciation and in order to truly know something you have see it, hear it, touch it and smell it. Heck, my ecology professor insisted that to truly know your study organism you had to eat it! While I wouldn’t necessarily go that far, I can see his point.
I spent the majority of my early adulthood observing and catching birds in far-flung locales for various scientific research studies. Did this disturb the birds? I am certain it did. Did it contribute to our knowledge and respect for these species? Again, I am certain it did. Will that knowledge and respect help improve conservation efforts in their behalf? I hope so.
It has been a few years since I got my hands on a bird and I miss it. My wildlife handling lately is confined to the canine, feline and toddler variety. But on a recent snorkeling trip at the Great Barrier Reef I spied a cuttlefish, drifting lazily above the sandy ocean floor. We had been warned by the tour boat staff not to touch anything on the reef, but a childish impulse overtook me. I dove down and briefly touched the cuttlefish with the tip of my finger, just to see if I could tag it before it darted off. Was I scolded by the strict matron in the bathing cap? Yup. Was it the best part of my day on the reef? Absolutely.