I am a member of the Philadelphia Zoo and from April to October if the weather is nice and I have no other plans I will head to the zoo on a Sunday morning just to walk around for a few hours. It’s relaxing, fun and a great way to clear my head. Since I don’t attend a church it is, in a sense, my way to worship through nature. A few weeks ago on one of those unusually warm spring days I was at the zoo for one of these Sunday morning strolls. I visited the otters who are always one of my favorites because they are always so active and playful as they slip and slide down their waterfalls and swim around chasing one another. On this particular Sunday there were two otters clearly having sex. Standing there watching them were about a dozen families all with young children, as I am usually the only creepy adult at the zoo without kids. All the children were squealing, laughing, pointing at the two otters having sex and asking their parents what the otters were doing. All the parents replied that the otters were wrestling or playing or some other euphemism but none, none, answered honestly that the otters were having sex. Apparently my experience is not unique. On his blog, http://randysbusylife.blogspot.com/2010/04/sex-education-at-zoo.html, Randy Seaver talks about and posts pictures of elephants having sex at the zoo while he was visiting the zoo with his grandchildren.
The field of human sexuality advocates that parents should begin talking about sexuality with children at a young age. Human beings are sexual from birth through death and not talking about sexuality with children can lead to fear, shame and anxiety around sex and sexuality issues. Parents often wait to talk about sexuality with their children until puberty but by then it is too late as children have learned about and received sexuality messages from peers, the media and the rest of the world around them. Or worse, parents never talk to their children about sexuality because they never find an opportunity to bring it up or have a conversation about it. In his book, "The Sexual Life of Children", Martinson talks about how children learn about sexuality in their everyday life yet parents avoid anything that permits or encourages sexuality when it comes to children in an effort to protect them and keep them innocent. Not answering honestly or avoiding sexuality, Martinson goes on to say, leaves the control of sexuality firmly in the hands of adults. Martinson echoes the sentiment of the human sexuality field that it is important for both parents and teachers to be informed about and have an opportunity to discuss sexuality with their children. Parents especially need to facilitate family discussions about sexuality because that is how they can integrate their family’s value system into sexuality. Here are some links that guide parents on how to talk about sexuality with their children:
If you visit any zoo websites from around the country you will see that they have a host of children and school education programs offered on a daily basis. None of these programs address sexuality. The San Francisco and Central Florida zoos offer animal sexuality classes but they are for adults only, and only offered on Valentine’s Day. The following link is someone’s account of the “Woo at the Zoo” program offered at the San Francisco zoo and is complete with pictures and interesting information about animal sexuality: http://www.asylum.com/2010/02/18/learning-about-how-animals-have-sex-jane-tollini-woo-at-the-san-francisco-zoo/
While some zoos are beginning to incorporate sexuality education into their programs the sexuality information is once again reserved for adults only.
Some people are beginning to use animal sexuality as a way to educate children. Animals are a traditional way to educate children and a staple in children’s literature. Famous stories such as, Aesop’s Fables and Winnie the Pooh, use animal characters or anthropomorphism to tell their tales. Well known children’s authors such as, Richard Scary, argue that animals are great for children’s stories because they are racially and ethnically neutral so they can appeal to all children and they are able to do things or take risks that human children cannot. Sexologists often study animal sexuality and argue that many animal sexual behaviors are found in the human world and vice versa. Animals are often a great way to learn about the nature and variety of sexuality. Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell’s book "And Tango Makes Three" is a children’s book on the different types of families and is based on the true story of three penguins at the Central Park Zoo. Roy and Silo were two male penguins that fell in love, built a nest and were trying to start a family of their own. The zoo keepers gave them their very own egg to care for and hatch and they ended up with a baby of their own, Tango. Richardson and Parnell took advantage of the real life teaching opportunity zoos offer in order to educate children about age appropriate sexuality issues. "And Tango Makes Three" can be purchased at http://www.amazon.com/Tango-Makes-Three-Peter-Parnell/dp/0689878451.
The otters having sex at the Philadelphia zoo a few weekends ago offered a great teachable moment for parents to begin having conversations with their children about sexuality. Instead of avoiding children’s questions about sex or answering these questions dishonestly parents should seize these opportunities to talk about age appropriate sexuality issues with their children. As sex educators we need to educate parents about sexuality and sexuality education and help them feel comfortable talking about these issues so that they can talk to their children about sexuality when opportunities present themselves, like the otters at the zoo. Zoo staff and school educators also have the opportunity to use animal sexuality as a way to educate and talk with children about sexuality. They provide a population that needs sex educators to educate and guide them in getting children’s sexuality education programs off the ground. Zoos offer both sexuality education opportunities for children and their parents, as well as professional relationships for sex educators.
Bruess, C. and Greenberg, J. (2009). Sexuality Education: Theory and practice, 5th ed. Jones and Bartlett Publishers: Sudbury, MA.
Heasley, R. and Crane, B. (2003). Sexual lives: A reader on the theories and realities of human sexualities. McGraw-Hill: New York, NY.
Martinson, F. M. (1994). The sexual life of children. Bergin and Garvey: Westport, CT.
Strong, B., W. L. Yarber, B. W. Sayad and DeVault, C. (2008). Human sexuality: Diversity in contemporary America. McGraw-Hill: New York, NY.