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A year three student at Waimuku Primary School searches for a tiger at the Auckland Zoo (PHOTO: GRACE WATSON/AUCKLAND ZOO)
A year three student at Waimuku Primary School searches for a tiger at the Auckland Zoo (PHOTO: GRACE WATSON/AUCKLAND ZOO)

PartnersMarch 11, 2019

How children’s connection with animals is helping them understand climate change

A year three student at Waimuku Primary School searches for a tiger at the Auckland Zoo (PHOTO: GRACE WATSON/AUCKLAND ZOO)
A year three student at Waimuku Primary School searches for a tiger at the Auckland Zoo (PHOTO: GRACE WATSON/AUCKLAND ZOO)

Asking eight-year-olds the hard questions about climate change wasn’t really the plan for John Daniell and Noelle McCarthy when Auckland Zoo asked them to do a podcast. But it turns out that kids are readier to look at our environmental reality in the eye than most.

Listen to Good Ancestors, a four-part podcast that examines the role of children in our planet’s future, below.

“We’re going to have a stink world. And it’s kind of our fault” says Hannah, 13. It’s depressing that she talks about it being “our” fault. How much collective responsibility does someone who’s only just made it into their teens really have for the slow-motion environmental trainwreck unfolding around the globe? To her, that doesn’t seem to matter. For the last couple of years, she’s been working to change consumer habits, first in her own family, then by contacting companies about their use of unsustainable palm oil in everyday household goods.  

What got her into it? “Orangutans are pretty cool animals – they kind of became our favourite animals – and we didn’t really like the idea their homes were being destroyed.”

Listen to episode one of Good Ancestors, a four-part podcast that examines the role of children in our planet’s future on the player above, subscribe on iTunes, or download this episode (right click and save).

Episode one: While visiting Auckland Zoo with a class of 8-year-olds, we experience the instant connection children make with animals and explore how that connection gives them a way into understanding bigger environmental issues like habitat loss and climate change.

There’s something about animals that taps into a child’s innate sense of connection with the world around them and empathy for the creatures in it. When it comes to zoos, while it’s great to be able to see them up close, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the animals aren’t in their natural habitat. When Auckland Zoo approached us about making a podcast, the staff we spoke with all recognised that tension: there’s no easy way around it. But the point they made was that the role of modern zoos has changed massively in the last couple of decades as habitat loss and climate change devastate wildlife around the planet. While a good zoo is still about having a day out with the fam, its deeper role is in conservation and education around the need for conservation.

We wanted to understand how children were learning about the science informing that need. How were they taking the bad news?

John and Noelle with Burma the female Asian elephant at Auckland Zoo (Photo: Grace Watson/Auckland Zoo)

“There’s been a lot of tears,” says Janine, mother of eight-year-old Ezra. We spoke with them at Auckland Zoo, where they were on a day trip with Room Three of Waimauku Primary. It was hard to talk to Ezra – less because eight-year-olds don’t speak in paragraphs than because it felt like we were patronising him: the answers to our questions were obvious and the tone of his voice suggested a righteous fury he could barely suppress.

Noelle: What’s happening in our oceans?

Ezra: It’s becoming filled with plastic.

Noelle: And what’s the plastic doing?

Ezra: It’s killing all the animals.

Noelle: And how does that make you feel?

Ezra: Bad.

Noelle: Is there something we can do about it?

Ezra: We can stop using plastic bags.

Room Three’s teacher Stacey Dewar says her students are “very affected” by what they’re finding out. She does what she can to prepare them for lessons around issues like the great Pacific garbage patch and its deadly toll on marine life. And she makes sure they understand there are ways – like limiting plastic use – of taking positive action.

Kids worrying about plastic bags might not feel like much of a defence in the face of climate change. But Laura Rayner, head of Auckland Zoo’s education program, says that optimism is a deliberate act of empowerment. “The worst thing is for children to come in and say, ‘What’s the point?’ You never want anyone to walk away with that feeling. You want to explain the issue, explain the problem and educate people on that, but also say, ‘this is actually how you can help and this is something you can do…’ because we want our young people to be instilled with confidence that there is a positive side and there are things they can get involved in and can do.”

Still, that sense of youthful empowerment hits up against adult inertia at some point. Ben Dowdle was a Year 11 student at Pakuranga High when he started a campaign to change palm oil labelling that harnessed a groundswell of public opinion. Nearly eight years on, despite a law change being supported by nine out of ten voters, it’s still in the works – even if he says that one thing he learned was that, “it’s very hard for politicians to say ‘no’ to idealistic young people.”

Ben says that while it might be small, this country’s identity as a progressive outlier on issues from women’s suffrage to being nuclear-free gives it a powerful platform when it comes to climate change. “As a percentage, our emissions are below 1% of global emissions. But we have this incredible potential to stand up on the world stage and demand action, and lead action, and not underestimate how powerful New Zealand is globally.”  

Students from Room 3, Waimauku primary at the Auckland Zoo (Photo: Grace Watson/Auckland Zoo)

Richard Gibson, Auckland Zoo’s curator of ectotherms and birds, underlines the importance of that political solution. “I’ve committed my whole life to conservation but it doesn’t make any difference, not in the global scheme of things. It makes a difference to me because I’m a reptile man and doing something about their conservation is my religion, it’s what I live for. But I know that all of it will be for nothing unless the powers of the world make some big differences… I’m glad to see there is an upsurge in the kids of the world speaking out for themselves because they’ve seen us talk about it a lot but reticent to actually do anything.”

That reticence – at least partly – comes out of naïve optimism. “It’ll be all right” is the kind of thing parents have been telling kids since forever and God knows we want it to be true. But the children we spoke with were all willing to understand what the future holds. There was a whole range of emotions that came from that understanding: sadness, anger, hope, determination, apathy. How they and we process those emotions and that information, and whether the energy that comes out of that can be brought to bear on those who hold the levers of power, will dictate how we all approach the crucial next steps.  

“I don’t want your hope” Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish activist leading the school strikes, told leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year. “I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.”

At the same forum, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern sat on the Safeguarding Our Planet panel with David Attenborough and Al Gore. She spoke about kaitiakitanga and being “on the right side of history.” Whether those words will be converted into action remains an open question.

Friday’s school strikes for action on climate change will be the first widespread protest of their kind in New Zealand. The depth of feeling we encountered talking to the country’s children suggests that, unless there’s real political change, it won’t be the last.

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