A long-time opponent of zoos, my up-close experience with wild animals has been somewhat limited. A trip through SE Asia years ago provided brushes with iguanas, water buffalo, and the ubiquitous gecko, but sightings of elephants or tigers evaded me; I refused to visit them in camps, wary of bearing witness to animals who underwent training for the sole purpose of entertaining humans. Wild creatures of an exotic nature felt like an aspect of the planet destined to remain distant from my own small existence; I sometimes imagined them in their natural habitat, but beyond that didn’t persue learning about them in any sort of focused way.
But teaching elementary-aged curriculum for the last two years has brought discussion of animals into my weekly sphere. Just this month my grade ones finished units on “Animal Survival” and “How Animals Bathe”, the latter featuring a story called “Splish, Splash, Animal Bath” that showed pictures of giraffes in the wild, pecked clean by flocks of birds called oxpeckers, who perch on the giraffe’s back and eat bugs found in their fur. During these kind of lessons the kids practice their reading aloud while I marvel at the photos, noting the relationship between bird and giraffe, bear and tree, ape and ape. My friend Josh has built a career capturing video and photos of animals in the wild, travelling to places like the Galapagos Islands to find species that exist nowhere else on earth. I think of him crouched on the shores there, zooming in on creatures I’ve never heard of, and turn the page of my grade ones’ textbook, next describing an animal called the okapi–related to the giraffe but striped like a zebra (am I the only one who didn’t know this creature existed?)–and feel like I’m missing out on something pretty big.
I want to be closer to animals.
I refuse to visit or support an institution that exploits animals for human entertainment. But in researching the various kinds of conservation-focused places that provide safe, natural habitats for endangered species, protecting them and educating people, I’ve realized it’s possible to see some of these creatures without detracting from their lives.
The Tarsier Sanctuary in Bohol, Philippines is one of these places. Shy, nocturnal, and looking a little like a gremlin, the tarsier is the world’s smallest primate. (Who knew?) Looking at photos online prior to our visit, I couldn’t decide if it was cute or kinda freaky looking, but I was definitely intrigued. The Philippines tarsier is endangered due to forest destruction and hunting (apparently the capture and sale of tarsiers to be used as house pets used to be a thriving industry) and the sanctuary is home to ten of them. Joe and I took a tricycle ride there from Loboc, and were able to spot five tarsiers with the help of our guide. The whole tour was only about ten minutes long, and our hoped-for jungle hike following it was prevented by rainy weather which had forced the jungle path’s closure, but seeing the tarsiers up close was still worth the trip.
Did I mention each of their eyeballs is as big as their brain?