The Cruelty and Compassion of Kids: A Zoo Tale

Working in a petting zoo has its benefits: you work outside all day; you get plenty of exercise from laborious farm chores; and when you need a break, dozens of friendly fauna await your playful attention. During my initial zookeeper training, the manager said I shouldn’t get too attached to the animals. “These aren’t your pets,” he cautioned. But it was impossible to not fall in love with such charismatic creatures—especially the goats.

I’d spend my afternoons in the barnyard walking amongst them as they lounged in the sun, stooping to scratch their heads and chests. Sometimes they’d follow me and butt my thigh for attention or treats; sometimes they’d playfully butt heads with each other; sometimes they’d butt the coin-operated treat dispenser hoping for a random jackpot. Our herd of Nigerian dwarf goats was a friendly, goofy bunch of critters that I took pride in keeping happy and healthy.

As a petting zoo—“pet” being the operative verb—zoo staff had to patrol the barnyard at all times to ensure safe contact between the visitors and animals. I saw myself as an ambassador; like a bridge between man and nature, I’d interpret animal behavior and facilitate adorable interactions between guest and goat. Unfortunately, most parents saw me as a babysitter for their own rambunctious, misbehaving spawn.

It’s surprising to learn that people expect all animals to behave like tranquilized bunnies, but they don’t expect good behavior from their kids. With little kids that’d never seen a goat before, I understood their fear and curiosity—it made them reactionary—but parents rarely used the petting zoo as a teaching opportunity to engender calm, understanding behavior in their children. I’ve seen a 7-year-old try to ride an unhappy goat while his parents took video and laughed. When the child fell off and the goat butted him in the back, the parents yelled at the goat. Then they yelled at me about the goat’s inappropriate, violent behavior.

I once threatened to call security on a group of unsupervised boys who kept pushing each other backwards over the goats, body slamming them. I’ve asked pre-teens to stop throwing rocks at the animals, stop punching them in the head, stop chasing them, stop harassing them, only to be scolded by their parents because “it wasn’t my right” to correct their kids. I’ve even seen two adult men grab a goat’s horns and wrestle it to the ground for fun. If the offender was over age 10, I often found myself saying, “You should know better.” And in return I frequently heard, “Why? They’re just animals.”

After awhile, I began to view humans as nothing more than cruel, spiteful primates playing at being the superior species, and I started assuming the worst at every turn.


Toward the end of a particularly hellish day, my heart sank when I saw two teenage boys and two little girls walk into the barnyard with their mother. I knew what would happen: the boys would taunt the goats, the girls would tell them to stop, then the boys would taunt harder to upset the girls. The mother would sit on a log in the yard, talking on her cellphone, oblivious to her children’s behavior.

I tried to keep an eye on the foursome, but after about 15 minutes, I lost them. Mom was still on her phone, totally unengaged. The only place they could have disappeared to was inside the goat barn. I strode over to the large double-door entrance, ready to rescue a goat from teenage malevolence, but what I saw stopped me in my tracks.

The boys sat amongst three goats, teaching the little girls to groom them with a brush. I listened from the entrance and heard the girls creating names and backstories for the goats, and the boys played along. One goat suddenly shook his head when a girl brushed his ear, tickling him; his horns knocked her in the shoulder, startling her. Instead of smacking the goat like I had seen other kids do, one of the boys laughed and explained that the goat probably didn’t know how big his head was; she tickled him so he twitched—it wasn’t his fault. She patted the goat between the horns and he started rubbing his head against her hand for a vigorous forehead scratch. The girls laughed as the boys started head-banging, imitating the goat. Smiling, I left the barn and walked up to their mother.

I don’t have kids so I don’t know how often random strangers approach parents and thank them for raising such well-behaved, respectful children, but this woman literally bit back tears when I said that her kids were a shining beacon of light in the dark well of awful children I dealt with everyday. A self-proclaimed nature lover, she explained how she taught her kids to respect animals—she had also read that exposing kids to animals increases empathy, responsibility, and patience in adulthood. She apologized for not keeping an eye on them herself, but would I mind telling her kids what a good job they were doing playing with the goats—that it would mean a lot coming from an “official zookeeper.”

Working in a petting zoo has its challenges; it’s hard to watch animals you love get treated like cheap entertainment. It’s even harder to watch parents ignore their children’s bad behavior. I hated that I had become so jaded in a job I ultimately loved. But as I sat with these kids and praised them for their kindness, I grew hopeful that as a zookeeper I could do more than just care for animals. With patience and practice, I could bypass the product of behavior-ignorant parenting and teach children the same lesson this mother had so thoughtfully instilled in hers: all living things deserve compassion.

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