Otters Behind Glass

On Tuesday I went to the WNC Nature Center with my friends Randee and Heather.

We had fun. The Nature Center is a great place, even for grownups, and admission is a shockingly low $7.

I am conflicted about zoos. It’s somehow such a completely human thing to find something beautiful in the wild, capture it, cage it and show it off to the young under the guise of education. But is that really how we want to introduce kids to wild animals — through creatures completely removed from their habitat, living their lives in cages? Polar bears pace in zoos because in the wild they have a roaming range the size of South Carolina, not the size of a big back yard.

But this is a nature center, not a zoo. The creatures here are mostly reptiles and local animals like wolves and black bears. There’s even a clean and well-kept petting zoo of uncommon livestock, like the Belted Galloway cow and the Sicilian Donkey. (Wish I’d taken pictures of those.)

In the reptile exhibit, which I loved, a Nature Center employee took out an Eastern Corn Snake to show us. I wish I had thought to take a picture, but I was enraptured by the snake. He wouldn’t let us call the snake “it” or “he” — the snake was female. She was rusty red with white rings and flawless scales that gleamed like silica. We got to touch her body, which was dry and muscular, and somehow soft. Her red tongue was long and forked and fluttered in and out of her mouth. Though the children were told not to put their hands near her head, they seemed unable to resist sticking their fingers where they’d feel the touch of her flickering tongue.

She was a beautiful thing.

But mostly we came for the “Beauty of Butterflies” exhibit, a brand-new outdoor summertime exhibit of live native butterflies.


It was shaped like a greenhouse and made of netting. There were butterfly-friendly plants inside, and the air was full of wings. There were lots of kids and plenty of adults, most of us rather enchanted. The gentleman in the back right corner is a Nature Center employee who deserves a raise. He was helpful, enthusiastic and just delighted to tell you about the butterflies in the exhibit. Look how he has got the two people he’s talking to looking at something.

You can’t see it, but in his right hand is a spray bottle full of sugar water. He’d ask to spray your hands with it. This is why:


You’d put your hand near a butterfly (they were everywhere), and it would gladly step on and drink the sugar water from your fingers with its slender black straw of a tongue.

See the liquid on my fingers, and the long pipe of a tongue extending from the butterfly’s head?


This butterfly was very happy on my hand and stayed there for minutes on end, drinking.

Heather was even luckier, and found herself with a little hitchhiker:


Look at all the butterflies on the netting above her.

Here is a magic cabinet full of live butterfly chrysalises, brown and hanging like bats:


At the bottom of the cabinet where you can’t see them are freshly hatched butterflies whose new and wrinkled wings are unfolding and unfurling.

We stepped out of the butterfly exhibit only to find this vision:


A handsome peacock whose imperial neck really was that magnificent shade of iridescent blue.

Then we went to see the boy and girl otter play in the water and groom each other.


I wish they had homes in the wild. But they were beautiful, their enclosure was clean, and they have the company of their kind.

When I was a child my grandmother took me to the circus. There was a tiger who was forced to perform tricks by a man who snapped a whip in its striped face and shot off loud blanks with a gun. The animal was beautiful and seemed angry. It growled. The circus lights were hot and red. I remember the audience being silent, not applauding, like were were not at the circus anymore but watching some weird rite.

After the show my grandmother and I walked back to the car without saying anything. I felt that I had seen an animal that was supposed to be something other than the brutish, angry thing it was, snarling under red lights for children with chins made greasy from popcorn.

But this wasn’t like that. The otters truly seemed carefree, twining around one another and then leaping out of the water like fish to groom one another on a painted concrete shore.

But is this what we want our children to see? Otters behind glass?

Isn’t there a better way?

5 responses to “Otters Behind Glass

  1. When we went to the NC Zoo last month it was nice to see that some of the animals had been rescued from circuses all over. The polar bears there came from a Mexico circus where they stayed in a cage most of their life that barely fit them.
    I for one like to visit a Zoo where I know they are doing good by the animals. I like the fact that my kids can go on an African safari and not venture to Africa. I guess it all depends on what zoo and how they are treated.

    I hope you are well.

  2. While in the last 20 years or so Zoo’s (some not all) have become more focused on conservation and protection of endangered species, there is, for me anyway, still something reprehensible about them, and I don’t visit them, nor will I allow my son to.

    I have visited the nature center, and while I think they are doing– or trying to do– good things there is something unsettling about the place. When I was there I stood above the bears and watched as one paced along the edge of the fence as the people above gawked, he eventually gave up and sat in the pool of water, and I guess the thing that bothered me was not only the lack of dignity that the bear seemed to have, but that the on-lookers seemed to think that he functioned as a source of entertainment for them. There are plenty of opportunities for people to have encounters with “the wild” the just require time and effort…and unfortunately those encounters are one of the reasons (along with over development of habitats) they end up in Zoo’s, and Nature Centres in the first place.

  3. Michelle, I heard about those poor polar bears. I think it’s great that some zoos are a place of rescue for animals that come from shaky zoos that don’t care for them well. I admit I’m ignorant about the issue, but I can’t help but wish that zoos would limit themselves to conservation or to keeping only animals that can enjoy an enclosure that is in every way exactly like what they’d enjoy in the wild. I think it’s very important for kids to see animals, but more important for them to see wild nature, not animals completely removed from wild nature. Based on my limited knowledge of zoos, I do think I’d prefer that our society move towards taking kids on safari than taking lions into pens, even big pens. Circuses need to take a page from Cirque du Soleil and drop the animal acts altogether. I’ve never seen a circus again after what I saw as a kid, but Cirque is everything people say it is.

    Shadmarsh, I think you’ve got a great point that people want to see nature, they just don’t want to expend the time and effort (and money, when we’re talking about non-WNC wildlife) to see wild nature. I agree that nature, not zoos and nature centers, is the place to see animals.

  4. Ahhh – that pic of the emergence cage takes me right back 20 years! I was never without a net enclosure of pupae, a tank of caterpillars, a room of moths and butterflies :-)
    Or an airing cupboard full of tarantulas, but that’s another story!

    Next time you go, where a white or yellow shirt, especially if they keep any of the larger silk moths – you’ll get plenty of hitch-hikers that way!

    As for zoos/conservation? Many over here work on the ‘safari’ principle with the animals in large enclosures though which one drives. Far as I’m concerned Gerald Durrell’s work in Jersey really is the model of what we should be looking at as the best of both worlds.

  5. Zoos seem kind of depressing. Either the animals can survive in the wild and therefore really should still be in the wild…or…due to habitat destruction, over-hunting, etc., the animals can’t survive in the wild. So…it seems we’re either saving animals from ourselves by caging them or just plain kidnapping them in order to cage them. On the other hand, I do think zoos raise environmental- & wildlife-awareness (especially for city kids).

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