Columnist discusses the disconnect between society and the natural world. 


As a ZooAide, the name for teen volunteers at the Columbus Zoo, I am on the lowest rung of the volunteer hierarchy. As such, I have no control over where I am assigned to work. Each time I volunteered, I was handed a printed-out Excel sheet with little color coded boxes outlining which exhibits I was supposed to rotate to each hour. Without fail, the seashell-pink box stamped with black Ariel font reading “Tidepool,” consistently appeared next to my name throughout the summer, and internally I prayed that the aquarium shut down before I made the trek over.

It’s not the actual job that I hate, in fact it seems like just the kind of task that I, someone who is looking towards marine biology as a future career, would want to have: helping an institution connect people with the underwater world. But what causes me to dread the prospect of the tedious tidepool, is far from this idealized goal of human–nature cooperation. I am tasked with standing at the front of the line, welcoming visitors and instructing them to “rinse their hands off here, and wait for further instructions before touching any of the animals.” It is monotony at best. 

My dislike, however, is not the focus of this story. Far from my own woes, I have come to observe a reluctance amongst visitors to interact with the denizens of the tidepool. It is understandable for little kids; a sea urchin looks like a creature conjured up from outer space rather than something docile and friendly. But after hours of listening to squealing children, and even watching grown adults demonstrate a fear of touching the animals, I began to wonder if there is some kind of disconnect between humans, in all our technological supremacy, and the life-sustaining natural world we take for granted. In the face of the “iPad-kid” generation, will kids today grow up to view the exploration of nature optional? Furthermore, is disconnect inevitable in an industrial world, where progress is marred by the destruction it leaves in its wake? 

Nature holds wonder and the opportunity for discovery, to be fascinated by it is not to view it as “the other.” However, to act as if nature belongs simply in a one-time visit to the zoo, is to overestimate our superiority as a species. It is an honor to be tasked with the responsibility of taking care of the Earth, not a temporary assignment or an afterthought.

Perhaps I am not being fair. Why should a child be blamed for the choices their parents make in raising them? It is not their fault if they grow up knowing nothing but digital gratification; I feel pity rather than annoyance towards the kids who scream at the prospect of touching an empty conch shell. 

I do not want to come across as bitter towards my volunteer position, for each time I volunteer, I am reaffirmed that my decision to pursue conservation and marine ecology is the right one. More importantly, I have the opportunity to share my passion with visitors, furthering the Zoo’s ultimate goal of connecting people and wildlife. 

There is no stopping technological progress and I am not advocating for the return to analog. What I am trying to say, what I feel is a vital point, is that no matter how much we are blinded by star-studded comforts, we must remember our place as pieces of a larger ecosystem.