Yesterday I went to the Toronto Zoo to see their six week old pygmy hippo calf. I spent three hours observing her and her mother in their pool, hoping to capture a good moment on camera. Like most babies, she spent a lot of the time napping. I also noticed that she had a couple of favourite spots; one on the edge of the ramp leading up to land, and the other beside a pillar under the pedestrian walkway. Whenever she would nap beside the pillar, I noticed after a few minutes that Kindia would grunt at her, beckoning her to return to the edge of the ramp. A highlight of the day was seeing the calf nurse from Kindia underwater. It was heartwarming to see their bond.
While I was watching the hippos, I also had the chance to see people’s responses to them. Almost unanimously, people cooed when they saw the baby, and most spent a few minutes observing her and taking snapshots before moving on. There was one notable exception: a group of teen boys. As Kindia and her calf swam under the bridge, the boys leaned over the railing and one of them spit. Appalled, all I could think to say was , “Don’t spit. Don’t spit!” He mumbled an apology. In hindsight, this could have been a teachable moment, but I seldom deal with kids and I’m not all that great off-the-cuff.
At any rate, I think this small incident is a double tragedy. A boy sees a critically endangered pygmy hippo and her daughter (less than 3000 left in the wild) and he spits on them rather than being amazed or feeling empathy. It’s tempting to view this as a sign of the times, but then I remembered a friend from university who witnessed a nearly identical incident when he visited the pygmy hippo 20 years ago (he yelled at the boy and told him that his saliva was filled with bacteria and potential disease vectors that could make the pygmy hippo sick). I’m also reminded of a scene from Dumbo, where the teen boys cruelly bully Dumbo for his large ears. It seems that for some (many?), empathy for animals doesn’t come naturally; it must be fostered and taught.
Today I returned to the zoo to photograph the pygmy hippos again. As I was leaving the zoo, I passed by the Sumatran Tiger enclosure and I saw a large family standing by the railing looking at the tiger below them. The father picked up something from the ground and threw it at the tiger. I yelled at him, “Hey! Don’t throw stuff at the tiger!” The family all turned to look at me. “Okay,” was his mumbled response. Perhaps I need to prepare a speech for incidents like these.