Sunday, November 1, 2015

To Handle or Not Handle

I have had occasion to make presentations to groups using live animals, and it has always been a bit of a quandary as to whether to handle specimens in the context of a demonstration, television interview, or other public situation. Here is what I have decided: Rarely will I handle animals.

A mantis not happy at being handled

Most contemporary naturalists either love the late great Steve Irwin for his contagious enthusiasm, or despise him for what they consider reckless behavior. There is no question that he has set a standard, good or bad, for recruiting the public to an appreciation of all forms of wildlife, beyond the cute and cuddly. We should aspire to his goal of changing phobias into fascination, but perhaps we should consider techniques other than "seize and show."

Preferred photo op with a milksnake in Missouri

I had an epiphany at some point in my own career whereby a voice in my head said that if I start handling animals in front of other people, it suddenly becomes all about me, and anything about the animal becomes lost in the perception of my own "bravery." Well, I'd rather be a coward, then. I believe in preserving respect for the creature by leaving it in peace.

Last resort photo op with another milksnake. Would I do it again?

Are there any exceptions? Sure. Presenting live animals to groups is a challenge because many creatures go into hiding in their cage or enclosure, and are thus not visible, at least to a large audience. Removing the creature for better visibility is occasionally necessary; but, I can often maneuver a captive insect or spider onto the lip of its vessel, or onto a twig, or other prop where the organism can still "decide" where to go, or settle into a resting position.

The safety of both the person and the animal should be a major consideration, too. I do not want any audience member to go home thinking they can handle an animal, whether or not it is venomous or otherwise poses a risk. Handling animals means walking a fine line between being assertive enough to diminish risk to yourself, and gentle enough to avoid injuring the animal.

A Wheel Bug on a stick is safer than handling one

I recall when, as a zookeeper, I was asked to step outside my comfort zone and carry around a potto (a primitive primate related to a loris) on a pole at an after-hours zoo event. One of the regular keepers had to put the potto on the stick for me; and I almost had it escape when, after hours of being an inert lump it suddenly came to life as we returned to the building where it was housed. I thought it was going to leap up on the roof!

Chris Bedel demonstrating the value of video at the Eulett Center, Adams County, Ohio

Ok, enough about me. See what I mean? We need to set aside our own ego when presenting animals to the public. These days, with advances in technology, we can capture videos of animals in the wild, exhibiting natural behaviors, and literally project *that* to the audience. There is also no substitute for getting your audience out into the field and showing them organisms in the context of a natural ecosystem, rather than a cage.

Showing a toad to field trip participants. Is this ok?

This, in my opinion, is what we should be shooting for: get people outdoors whenever possible, and point out animals going about their lives. Birders are perhaps the naturalists we should be looking at for a new model of animal demonstrations. The usual vehicle for recruiting new birders is the field trip. What a concept! Bird banding stations here in Colorado are increasingly allowing public viewing during banding activities. This is great. The birds have to be handled to be banded, so why not kill two birds with one stone, so to speak, and let others observe, up close?

I welcome comments and suggestions here, regardless of whether you agree with my views. Meanwhile, you might reconsider that Facebook profile picture with the live spider on your face. Just sayin'.


  1. I used to love grabbing little snakes and turtles and lizards or whatever I could catch when I was a kid, but now that I'm older I think about how many stress hormones must be taxing their bodies when this happens. That, and whatever defense they have might get used up on you... shed tail, defecation or whatever. If they get caught again soon that won't be available.

    There are a lot of videos of animals frozen in tonic immobility scared senseless and humans can't read this because it's not intuitive to them. They think the animal is relaxed and enjoying whatever is happening to it. It's not hard to understand and learn the way animals use body language to communicate, but it's not something that is taught often.

  2. Very good points. I have not been a demonstrator of wildlife for a very long time, and if I ever am I will try to keep your advice in mind since I agree with every bit of it.

  3. I agree with much of what you say and am VERY appreciative that you said it.

    Very little is known about the impacts to non-human animals from just seeing us (like an elk's heart rate tripling when seeing people 100 yards or more away but showing no visible-to-us signs of stress), much less being handled by us. I have close friends & family who still handle wildlife (usually out of appreciation & curiosity) but I only handle wildlife it if I am rescuing them or am doing it as part of my job (e.g. trapping them out of a soon-to-be construction site).

    People will even look askance when I do NOT handle an animal (while they handle it) as I am a professional biologist, but my training is precisely why I avoid it whenever possible. Endangered species have died from the stress of being handled by people.

    In the end, it's NOT about us. Consider how few "spare" calories they have. Do you want them to spend them on freaking out 'cause you just want to be close to them?

    If you are on the edge of starvation & battling disease, do you want a HUGE alien to come down from the sky and pluck you up in the air (or pull you down into the water) and handle you for what you believe may be your last moments? Probably no.

  4. Prior to digital photography I felt distanced from the insect world. I didn't want to net them and often they were too small to see well without capturing them. Now I can sneak up with a telephoto lens and a meet a variety of insects up close and personal. The very day I can pop them onto the computer and enjoy every whisker, spine, and hundreds of eyes. I love it!


Blog author currently unable to reply to reader comments, nor comment himself. Working to resolve this.