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May 18, 2017 by

How Animals Teach Us

karen winnick photoCreating children’s books about animals has allowed me to express the wonderment I feel when I watch and learn from them.

When I first met Gemina at the Santa Barbara Zoo I knew I wanted to tell her story. Born healthy, the giraffe was three when a bump appeared on her neck. Over time it grew, causing her neck to become severely crooked. Perhaps the bump came from an injury, though the veterinarians would never know for sure. Gemina didn’t allow her disability to prevent her from doing what the other giraffes did. And they accepted her without reservation as part of the herd. Gemina captured the hearts of many visitors.

gemina coverAfter my book Gemina, The Crooked-Neck Giraffe was published, I received an email from a young mother in Spain. “When my (four-year-old) son was born, we were told he was deaf. After many tests and surgery, he was implanted with a cochlear implant . . . Every night he wants to see the book. He loves to explain every page. I just want to thank you for writing a wonderful story that is allowing my son to learn new words and teaching about disabilities and how in the eyes of Gemina, we are all the same.”

Animal stories provide gentle ways of helping children feel better. A child with a disability can relate to an animal facing obstacles, one whose determination has helped them to adjust and thrive. Such a story is a boost to a child’s self-image. For a child without a disability a story such as Gemina’s helps to develop sensitivity and compassion for others. For parents there’s an opportunity to open a dialogue.

Soon after Gemina, I wrote and illustrated How Lucky Got His Shoe, about a Humboldt penguin with a deformed foot. If Teva, the water shoe company, could make a shoe for an elephant, they could make one for a penguin! His special shoe helped Lucky survive, enabling him to walk, swim and thrive like all the other penguins at the Santa Barbara Zoo. Lucky and his mate for life are now hatching an egg.

As President of the LA Zoo Commission, I was able to have an inquiry sent out to zoos across the country, asking about any animals with disabilities. I am now working on a collection of these stories.

Gulliver, a year-old gull, hung from a power line for three days before he was rescued, and his crushed left wing had to be amputated. Today he scuttles about his aviary, a lively gull playing tricks like hiding objects, then cocking his head and waiting for a reaction.

Randa, the oldest rhino in a North American zoo, is a cancer survivor.

Eloise is an orangutan, born with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, cutting off her supply of oxygen. Her mobility is limited, but she’s devised her own ways of getting around.

Piper, a blind red fox, visits schools and shows students how energetic and well adjusted a blind fox can be.

Kuma, a Brazilian ocelot, lost her leg when her father was too aggressive. She’s a pioneer, producing kittens by innovative techniques, and helping to save her species.

Dolly, a California condor unable to fly, appears with her keeper to inform visitors how only 22 of her kind were left in the world. With conservation efforts, over 200 now fly free. Almost that number are living and breeding in captivity.

Silent Knight, blinded by a gunshot, is a large male sea lion in San Francisco. He’s an ambassador who reminds us to respect all life. One young girl, on hearing his story, burst into tears and asked, “How could anyone hurt an innocent animal?” 

In the wild, animals with disabilities don’t often make it, unable to catch food or escape predators. But in zoos, their needs are met with special diets, exercise and medical care.

I find these stories about animals fascinating, relevant to our own lives and those of our children. 

Karen Winnick’s most recent book is Good Night Baby Animals, You’ve Had a Busy Day (Holt, 2017).

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.