Lake Superior Zoo, Duluth, Minnesota

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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

written by Susan Wolniakowski, Guest Services Director

It’s no secret that here at the zoo we are surrounded by animal lovers. Whether you are office staff, zoo-keeping staff, volunteer staff, or a guest, you find yourself filled with empathy for the furry creatures. Our guest services staff is always fielding calls from caring, concerned individuals who’ve stumbled upon injured, lost or abandoned critters. Seeing an animal in distress tugs at your heart strings and the instinct is to instantly reach out and help. There’s a need to heal the injured, calm the scared and vulnerable, and stabilize the needy. When we look into their begging, hurt eyes our very soul it seems, is reflected back at us. I wonder how different this world would be if we applied that same instinct to our human counter-parts?

Unlike animals, when it comes to humans, our instinct seems to be to stop and try to make a judgment call. Why is this person in a predicament? Is it somehow by a fault of their own? If we see a black bear in town, up a tree and frightened, the community will rally to get it to a safe place. No one looks away snapping, “Well, it’s his own fault, he shouldn’t have wandered into town. If he didn’t opt for the easy food offered by neighborhood birdfeeders and instead hunted and foraged for his food, he’d be just fine”!

I recently read a blog written by a mom who, faced with a difficult child, chose to use a harness on him when they were out in public. The looks she received clearly showed the judgment that was being passed on her. No one had ever offered to help her control or keep an eye on her child because they were too busy judging what she was doing wrong, and what errors she might be committing in raising the child. When she finally did have an offer of help at a playground, it was a striking event.

Think about it- how many stories have you heard about a baby duck that’s wandered away from its mother, and a group of folks go great lengths to rescue the baby duck and send it back on its way with mom and the family? There’s no judgment about how mama duck is using bad duckling raising techniques, and deserves to lose one of her brood.

Zookeepers and folks in the animal care field deal with temperamental animals on a daily basis. If an animal is feeling sick, or tired or scared and lashes out injuring someone we are all empathetic towards both keeper and animal. There is complete understanding that a skittish animal that has experienced stress in its life will need to be worked with in order for it to be calm and confident once again. We understand that it is compassion and caring that bring about a transformation, not anger and blame from its care-takers.

So why can’t we be that way with humans? Why look with disdain upon someone who is angry, difficult or needy, or who has possibly wounded our self esteem with their demeanor? Instead why can’t we just ask ourselves what we can do to help? What can we do to make their lives better, even if just for a moment? Should it matter if the difficulties faced by that person are of their own making? Should we be comparing their parenting or life skills with ours, measuring them with the rest of society in order to determine if they’re worthy of help? Or should we look into their eyes, reach out and let ourselves instinctually lend comfort to another human being who is lost or feeling lost, neglected or feeling neglected, injured physically or mentally and let it tug at our heart strings?

posted by Keely Johnson at


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