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How To Make Sure Your Kid Isn’t A Jerk at the Zoo

Kids can avoid terrifying their favorite animals with a little help from science.

Zoos can be fun for the entire family, but they’re pretty miserable for the animals—especially when your kid won’t stop tapping on the glass in front of the cobras and pissing off the orangutans. But at the same time, learning about the environment, conservation, and wildlife in general are all important. How, then, can we take our children to the zoo without ruining the animals’ day?

Play the Quiet Game

If your kid screams in delight at the mere sight of a dog, it’s important to explains to him or her that noise can be incredibly stressful to animals. A review of literature suggests that, when kids scream, stress responses occur across most species that not only affect an animals’ behavior, but also its physiological and psychological well-being. As a parent, you probably can relate on some level.

Don’t Make Eye Contact

You probably have noticed that people who make normal eye contact generally come off as more likable and trustworthy. The good news is that animals feel the same way. The bad news is that they only feel this way when its their own species making the eye contact. Just think of how freaked out you would be if all of the squirrels in your yard suddenly started staring into your eyes. In primates, for instance, eye contact is used within a social group to communicate. Outside of that social group, eye contact either doesn’t register or is seen as a threat. You don’t want to threaten most primates.

Or You Know, Any Contact

The tragedy of Harambe, a gorilla notoriously killed after attacking a toddler who fell into his habitat (surely you remember Harambe), was not an isolated incident. In the past 26 years, there have been 256 injuries from animal attacks in zoos, menageries, and wild animal parks in the U.S., including three deaths. That’s not even counting the near misses, such as when a silverback gorilla broke the protective glass in 2015 in response to a little girl pounding her chest.

Getting to close to the animals, touching them, or otherwise doing stuff that the average kid doesn’t do at the zoo can be recipe for disaster. Don’t cause another Harambe.

Signs, Signs, Everywhere a Sign

Read the signs. Some signs protect your kids from falling into habitats, while others may tell you about research taking place in an exhibit. This information can give you and your kid more specifics about the best way to observe the animals without disturbing scientific endeavors. Meanwhile, people who interact with signs in zoos tend to display more knowledge of the animals they visit, studies suggest. If your kid can’t read yet, set an example and read to them.

Teach Kids To Respect Mama Bears

Your kids know that you’re protective of them (because you won’t let them climb on the habitat barricade to get a better view). And it’s important to for children to know that animal parents are just as protective as you are. So children need to be especially well-behaved around animal parents. If they want to throw a tantrum, they can do so in their own natural habitat—the gift shop.

Sorry Kid, You’re Not A Zookeeper (Yet)

Parents should teach their children that, no matter how often they visit the zoo, they’re outsiders. Research has shown that zookeeper interactions with animals have a positive effect on their behaviors, but that the opposite is true for outsiders, even regular ones. They can walk around like they own the place when they grow up and become zookeepers. Until then, they are guests.