How do we talk to our kids about scary, sometimes fatal wildlife encounters? From the 2016 incident of a young boy falling into a gorilla enclosure at the Cinncinnati Zoo to the death of a two-year-old boy who was killed after an alligator dragged him into a large, man-made lake near a Disney hotel outside of Orlando, Florida, these incidents can leave both parents and children shaken.
“I think this is so tragic that you’re never going to find the words to magic it away,” says Melina Gerosa Bellows, National Geographic's chief education officer. “But what parents can do is reassure their kids that mom and dad are doing everything they can to keep them safe.”
While sometimes horrific and sad, Bellows says parents might also try to use such events as teaching moments. (Learn more about how to travel with kids.)
“We talk about respecting and caring for the environment,” she says. “Well, animals are part of the environment, and you should never get too close to a wild animal.”
After spending over 40 years studying and caring for animals, Jack Hanna says it all comes down to one word: respect.
Before you enter a zoo or other area that might contain a wild animal, parents should talk to their children about expectations, says Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Ohio and host of multiple wildlife-oriented television programs.
“This is the animal’s home,” he says. “You don’t yell. You don’t throw peanuts. You respect its home.”
And the advice doesn’t stop at elephants and bears. Chances are, kids will encounter a dog far more frequently than an exotic animal.
Which is why Hanna recommends teaching your children to always ask for permission before petting a dog, and under no circumstances should the child ever put his or her face near the animal’s muzzle.
“I don’t care what kind of dog it is,” he says. “The owner may say, ‘Well, this dog’s never bit anyone before.’ But that’s not the point. The point is it can happen.”
Honesty Is the Best Policy
Apart from reassuring children that events like these are extraordinarily rare and educating them about ways to avoid danger, it may help kids to understand a little bit about an animal’s biology.
“I don't think there's any alternative to just telling kids the truth, as lovingly and as sensitively as possible,” says Gerry Bishop, the former editor of the National Wildlife Federation’s children’s magazine, Ranger Rick.
“In the case of the alligator, the truth is that it is a predator that hunts by instinct and will catch and eat anything it can,” says Bishop, referring to the 2016 death of the boy attacked by an alligator at a Disney World hotel.
But this doesn’t mean we should teach kids that alligators or other animals are mindless killing machines. Instead, we should help them see animal behaviors like predation or defense as natural.
“That’s what it has to do to survive,” says Bishop. “[An alligator] really doesn’t know the difference between a little human and a raccoon.”
Obviously, parents need to make the best decisions for themselves and their family, and not all of this advice may be appropriate for everyone—particularly young children. But there’s one thing it seems every parent might be able to take away from these kinds of situations.
If nothing else, “this is a really great reminder for parents to hug their kids every day and tell them that you love them,” says Bellows. “Because you never know.”
Editor's note: This story was updated on April 22, 2019.