If you are reading this you probably just love animals. (I always have and always will.) Perhaps it is because animals enlighten, enrich, entertain and enchant us. They make us laugh and make us cry. They create a sense of awe and wonder about the universe and our never-ending search for meaning.
As an author of a series of best-selling non-fiction children’s books about famous animals, I have given scores of presentations about my lovable beasts to thousands of students. I love meeting with young readers– usually three to four hundred K-5ers at a clip excitedly stirring about in their chairs in a school auditorium waiting to hear the latest about Owen and Mzee (the tortoise and hippo odd couple), Knut (the polar bear who was named “cutest animal in the world”) or Winter the Dolphin (star of Dolphin’s Tale who swims with a prosthetic tail.)
My completely unscientific research shows that 97 out a 100 kids love animals. There are always two or three for whom animals just aren’t their thing. But for the majority maybe can we bottle this emotional connection with animals to help create better readers. Reading is the key to education. I am convinced better readers will be a essential to creating better people.
This raises the question of how can we tap into this powerful, near-obsession with animals to help make a better world? If we can give kids something to read they are interested in, they will become interested in reading. It is very clear that the more words a kid reads the better their academic performance will be. Is there any evidence out there this might work? There is a lot.
We know if you want to teach kids how to sneeze properly (into their elbow) just enlist Elmo to show how to do and they will listen and change their behavior. We trust Elmo. He’s credible. Try to name one politician today that is credible who anyone in their right mind would listen to.
Putting words into the mouths of others we trust is an age-old technique dating back to the times of the Talmud. Even if someone didn’t really say something, attribution is everything. And over time it takes on a life of its own. One of my favorite quotes about animals, but really more about humanity, is attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” It’s a beautiful and profound quote. Only problem is it is highly questionable that Gandhi ever said it. But does that really matter? It’s still one hell of quote!
Interestingly the same applies to another of my favorite quotes about animals, but really more about humanity, attributed to Albert Einstein: “If the bee were to disappear off the face of the globe then man would only have four years of life left.” Great quote, great man, highly questionable attribution. But then again does it really matter?
Until very recently I was unaware of the apocryphal nature of both of these quotes. So how do I even know if they are questionable attributions? My go to source for all things controversial or questionable is Snopes.com. So if you would like to do a little research on this matter please let me know if your results come up with anything to the contrary.
We also know attributing a powerful idea to our favorite Sesame Streeter Elmo will help start a movement. Likewise attributing quotes to trusted sources can also make an impact. So perhaps there is an opportunity to teach virtues to kids (and adults) with a touch of pop-culture elan that can engage us in a new form of ethical and moral consciousness about animals and about humanity—putting words and ideas into mouths of animals who we trust or at least have no reason to distrust.
Lest you think this a crazy idea, I will remind you of one of my favorite and most profound thoughts about the meaning of life came from none other of the famous talking horse, Mister Ed form the hit 1960s TV show. When his haphazard owner, Wilbur, tries to understand how it was that Mister Ed came to speak, Mister Ed’s response was simply “Don’t try. It’s bigger than both of us.” It’s a total gem even if Mister Ed didn’t really speak.
So when it comes to our collective and individual obligations to help save the world, or at least not to destroy it, we have to understand that everything on the planet and in the universe is connected. And whether it is four years or forty, we should also at least acknowledge that if we were to lose the honeybee life on earth would be in great peril. It doesn’t take an Einstein to figure that one out.
What we do for and to our animals and how we treat them, from the rats in our kitchens to our beloved, yet eccentric pet dogs and cat to the endangered snow leopards in the Himalayas this will be one irrefutable measure of our ethical and moral development. As I am sure Mister Ed would say, “Wilbur, this is bigger than all of us.”
This story appeared in thedodo.com
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Craig Hatkoff co-founded Tribeca Film Festival with Jane Rosenthal and Robert De Niro after September 11th to help revitalize lower Manhattan. He is also the co-founder of the Disruptor Foundation with Clayton Christensen, and the creator and curator of the annual Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards. Craig is a children’s book publisher and author as well. His New York Times #1 best-seller, Owen and Mzee, is part of a non-fiction series about resilience of young animals who overcome traumas and life challenge.