Go Play Outside!

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A young Robin at Grand Teton National Park.

October is Kids Free Days at the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park. During October, staff at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research are sharing their interactions and connections with nature at a young age and how these connections put them on their paths to becoming conservation biologists. Read a previous post, A Child’s Experience in Wolong.

I did not grow up surrounded by open spaces. The closest I got to rural living was reading Little House on the Prairie. I was raised in a suburban neighborhood, like many other kids. As a child, I never had a particular interest in nature. I enjoyed being outdoors, I loved to camp and fish, but if you had asked my parents what I was likely to be when I grew up, a biologist would have been an improbable guess (an actress would have been more on the mark).

I’ve often thought about what set me on my path. Although they probably didn’t intentionally do so, my parents did make nature an overarching theme in my childhood. I could use pages upon pages describing all my outdoor memories. My father, an English teacher, had summers off, and when I was a small child we went to the beach every single day of summer vacation. I remember hiking with him on the cliffs of Torrey Pines, awed by the rugged trails and breathtaking views. He taught me to body surf in the waves, and, together with my grandparents, we would walk down Oceanside pier, looking into the fishermen’s buckets to see if anything was biting.

Undoubtedly my favorite memories are of our annual family vacations. My mother preferred the mountains, so every other year we met with extended family at Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. My cousins and I would roam through the pine tree groves around our campground, pretending to be explorers or pioneers. I remember putting on life jackets and floating down the freezing cold Snake River. I can recall my dad’s frustration as I lost lure after lure on the rocky bottom of the river, and my mom taking me horseback riding, even though she was six months pregnant.

Robin at the Limbe Wildlife Center in Cameroon in 2008.

Now I know that these experiences played a huge role in shaping who I am today, but I kept coming back to the fact that taken by themselves, they were just not enough to motivate me to pursue a career in conservation. When I started my degree in biology, it was not with the intention of saving the planet; my goal was to get into medical school and become a doctor. During the course of my first biology class, though, I was introduced to the diversity of life on our planet, and I found that something in me began to stir. That sense of awe and wonder and discovery that being in nature had first roused in me as a child, I began to feel again.

One professor, in particular, had such a contagious enthusiasm and excitement for biodiversity that it was impossible not to feel it, too. The last lecture he gave, though, was not full of his usual excitement and marvel, but instead was delivered with gravity. This was to be one of the most influential moments of my life. He had spent five weeks exposing us to the tremendous beauty and diversity of life on our planet, and on that last day he told about the loss of that diversity, about the biodiversity crisis that we were facing. Talking about this crisis, he cried, and I cried with him. I sat in that lecture hall with 200 other students, and I cried for the fate of our planet, cried for all the beauty and wonder that has been and would continue to be lost. He made a plea that day: for more people to dedicate their lives to discovering and protecting biodiversity. And as for me, I walked into that lecture hall a pre-med student, but I left a conservationist, and that is who I have been ever since. That professor incited in me a passion for life on our planet, but I like to think that a childhood spent in the outdoors was the kindling that had just been waiting for a spark.

Robin Keith is a Conservation Education Senior Research Coordinator at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

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