I walk closer to their enclosures, carrying her. Up until today, she has called them lions ninety-five percent of the time, lions being the more common jungle cat of choice in toddler literature and playthings. “It’s like a lion, but with stripes,” I’ve said before, which is of course false in many regards, but toddler zoology lessons often are.
She has seen them in miniature, an afterthought in the flap of one of her books. She has seen them in fiction, but the kind that sings and bounces, with an extra ‘g’ and the wrong pronunciation, so that hardly counts. Today, she is seeing them up close.
Introductions are in order. Tiger, meet Ella. She is almost two and likes plain noodles, dogs and climbing. Ella, meet tiger. He could kill you with one swipe of his paw. As a mother protecting her young, that’s what I think. But as a person concerned with the protection of the environment and animal conservation, introducing my child to an endangered animal I hope she learns to care about, I am careful with my words. She is a sponge and a parrot; she is afraid of the live frogs that make me scream in our backyard, but likes pictures of sharks, which I speak of with reverence. I try not to make her feel she has to fear an animal (well, most animals) before she can decide for herself, and I feel the tiger deserves a chance to present itself without prejudice.
I begin with “wow”.
“Wow, look at that tiger. We’ve never seen one before, huh? It’s so big, huh? Do you see the stripes? Remember, like in your book?”
“[What’s the] tiger doing?”
“The tiger is resting. It’s probably tired. Maybe it just finished eating and is taking a nap, like you do.”
“Are you scared? Yes, they can look scary. Oh, but look at where they are sleeping. The zoo made sure that we would be safe and they can’t come too near us. The zoo is taking such good care of the tigers and the animals, huh? We can look at them safely from here.”
“Yes, look only. We can not touch them. But we can look. And we can listen. Do you hear the sound the tiger is making? It’s not roaring like the lion in your book, huh? Can you make that sound and say hi to the tiger?” We make tiger sounds together and she laughs.
Someday, I will tell her more, from the little that I know. That the tiger’s stripes are as unique as our fingerprints. That they don’t really live in zoos, but in jungles, swamps and rainforests. That there are fewer tigers left in the wild than there are in captivity, and that I wonder, in moments like today’s, if there will still be tigers for her to tell her future child about or if all she’ll be able to say is “I saw a tiger once. It was…Wow.”