If you could live one day as another animal, which species would you want to be, and why? I started asking this question as an ice breaker during trainings and orientations a few years ago, inspired by a workshop I’d attended on the role of empathy in conservation messaging. I felt like I always got the same handful of responses when asking the old classic, “What’s your favorite animal?” and I wanted to ask something that would tell me more about the people I was meeting. And maybe, if I was lucky, it would plant a seed in my teammates’ minds to use similar techniques during conversations with Zoo guests.
Over the years, I have heard some very thought-provoking responses to this question. One person would want to be a rhinoceros to better understand their sensory experience (rhinos have poor eyesight but an excellent sense of smell). Another would want to be a tiger and see just how good their vision is at night. Someone else would want to be a clouded leopard to see what it feels like to have rotating ankle joints. Personally, I would want to be an elephant and see how long it takes me to figure out how to use a trunk (probably much longer than one day).
These examples highlight a nearly universal aspect of the human experience – the desire to embody traits of the wildlife that live alongside us. Some of the oldest examples of symbolic expression, dating back tens of thousands of years, either depict animals or are made from animal parts. Across cultures, animals hold symbolic meaning, and throughout time we have used representations of those animals to draw inspiration from them. But as the human population continues to grow, most wildlife populations are in decline and some practices that have held symbolic meaning for generations are no longer sustainable. Ironically, our reverence and admiration for animals has been a driving force behind global wildlife trafficking and led to population declines for many iconic species.
Take tigers, for example. Revered for their strength and agility, tiger parts have been used in traditional medicines for thousands of years. In the early 1900s, there were an estimated 100,000 tigers living across Asia. But over the last century, human population growth has led to a decrease in available habitat for tigers and an increase in demand for products made from their parts. Today, there are fewer than 4,000 tigers living in only 4% of their historic range, and one-third of tiger subspecies are extinct in the wild. With so few tigers remaining in the wild, it is simply unsustainable to continue hunting them for trade.
Fortunately, we have a plethora of ways to create and carry representative symbols of our favorite species without harming wildlife. We can wear clothing or jewelry depicting animals. Some people may get tattoos as permanent reminders, while others may create visual art, write poetry, or even simply sit in silent reflection. These are all fantastic ways to recognize the unique attributes of amazing animals without having any negative impacts on their wild populations. What are some ways that you symbolize your admiration of animals?