Pelted with questions

Every year, I forget that May is a crazy whirlwind of school groups at the zoo — and every year, I’m reminded. Volunteers are encouraged to stroll or sit with animal pelts, or skins, year-round, and for families who visit the zoo often, those skins are a familiar sight. But last month also reminded me that for the many children from families that don’t visit the zoo — or hunt, for that matter — they’re a disorienting  sight that demands context. So the questions come pouring out, repeatedly, in high-pitched voices: “Is it dead?” “Did you kill that?” And sometimes, softly, “Oh, sad.”

Sharon Bob puma lynx

That’s when fellow volunteers like Sharon and Tom (seen here with the lynx and puma pelt, respectively) jump in with the context: We never kill an animal for its pelt at the zoo. For the highly endangered sea otter, for instance, it’s not just “sad” but illegal to do so. But in previous centuries, in a world without retail stores, the ability to hunt wasn’t recreational: It kept humans from freezing as well as starving. (A standout phrase from our bison “bench talk” is “SuperTarget of the Great Plains” — Native Americans used every part of the animal as food, shelter or tool.)

Our zoo pelts come from animals who died of natural causes; many come via the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, a partner in lots of zoo projects. Death is sad but also natural, and the pelts give us a chance to talk about varying lifespans, special adaptations (the lynx, my favorite pelt, has big furry feet for pursuing its prey, the snowshoe hare, across snowdrifts) and the animal’s native climate. It’s also a chance for the animal to “live on” and a chance for kids to “pet” a wild animal they would never touch otherwise. The hair or fur often feels rougher or softer than you’d expect just from looking. And my momentary discomfort at a high-pitched “Did you kill that?” (I can’t begin to imagine killing an animal) reminds me that the squealed question is just another opportunity to educate.