Talking to kids about extinction — with hope

Rick Schwartz, a national spokesperson for the San Diego Zoo, responds to a conversation that started between him and parents on social media in the wake of the death of one of the last northern white rhinos left in the world.

Talking to kids about extinction — with hope
  • On November 2, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park made the sad announcement that Nola, a 41-year old northern white rhino — one of only four left in the world — had passed away.
  • Schwartz says he received a number of messages from parents, who were overwhelmed themselves, wondering how to talk with their kids about Nola's death.
  • "The death of a much-loved animal is hard," Schwartz writes. "When it is one of the last of its species, the conversation becomes even more difficult."

Two months ago, on November 2, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park made the sad announcement that Nola, a 41-year old northern white rhino — one of only four left in the world — had passed away.

“Nola, who lived here since 1989, was under veterinary care for a bacterial infection, as well as age-related health issues,” the announcement said. “In the last 24 hours, Nola’s condition worsened and we made the difficult decision to euthanize her. We’re absolutely devastated by this loss, but resolved to fight even harder to #EndExtinction.”

According to the San Diego Zoo Global, a non-profit conservation arm of the zoo, three rhinos are killed every day, their horns hacked off so they can be sold on the black market.

This post is by Rick Schwartz, national spokesperson for the San Diego Zoo Global, written in response to a conversation that started between him and parents on social media in the wake of Nola’s death.

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A photo of Nola taken on April 24, 2015. Photo by Jeffrey Keeton / Flickr.

On Sunday, November 22, one of the last four northern white rhinos — a female named Nola — died at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Along with an outpouring of sympathy, sorrow, and messages of condolence, I received a number of emails from parents who were overwhelmed themselves and trying to share the news with their children. The death of a much-loved animal is hard. When it is one of the last of its species, the conversation becomes even more difficult.

With Nola’s loss, the extinction of a species became a topic of daily conversations — here in San Diego, and throughout the world. We are in an extinction crisis, and every day we hear about the loss of animals, the loss of biodiversity, and the rapid march to the brink of existence for animals that are icons for all of us. Rhinos, elephants, orangutans, and turtles—these are species we know and love. They are species depicted in the books we read as children, on our pajamas, in our own childhood drawings, and on our wallpaper. The idea that one of these beloved animals is lost is sad, and the loss of all of their kind is overwhelming. Now, just imagine all of this from the perspective of a child.

In my career, I have the distinct pleasure of speaking to children of all ages about the wonders of nature — and, more specifically, about the amazing animals of our planet. So, how do you talk with a child about the permanent loss of a species like the northern white rhino — or any other species that is on the brink of extinction? How do you tell children about this kind of loss in a way that prepares them for the world, but can also build hope for the future?

Children feel a deep connection with animals. Wildlife is magical, innocent, and good, in their eyes. And because it is held in that light, they usually have a response that is rooted in emotion. (Many adults do, too—but we’re talking about kids here.) You need to be ready for this — and I am not just talking about tears: you need to be ready for the moment when they declare they need to do something to help the animals. More often than not, because of their deep feelings for wildlife and animals in general, children want to take action to save them from extinction.

Extinction of a species can be a very disturbing idea for adults, as much as for children. And with that, it is not uncommon to hear some adults respond to the stories of poaching or wildlife trafficking with statements like “I hate humans.” Or, “I am embarrassed for our species; shame on us.” Though these sentiments are understandable, as many of us feel frustrated with what some people do, it is important to remember it is, indeed, only some people. Remember that there are many people who are working hard to save animal species. Sharing stories about the ongoing fight against extinction will help a child cope with loss by building heroes that children can emulate themselves.

For some young children, it can be as simple as doing a craft or making a drawing of the animal, to honor how the child feels about it. You can also encourage your child to write a letter (or dictate one to you) to your local or federal government officials, asking for their help to protect endangered species. You can research ahead of time — or let your child research with you — things that can be done to help support wildlife conservation. Children are happy to help raise funds, or simply help raise awareness.

This is not an easy topic to cover. But taking the time to have this discussion with your child is important. You can help them feel empowered. You can give them hope. You can help them be prepared to build a better world: a world where all people work together to protect the wildlife around us — and a world where animal species are valued by adults; not for their horns, ivory, or fur, but for the feeling of wonder they give us. Tell your child about extinction — but build in hope for the future.

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