Coaching Kids on Wildlife Encounters





What to do when your kid meets a moose? The first rule of wildlife encounters is to stay calm. Photo: Doug Steinbock
What to do when your kid meets a moose? The first rule of wildlife encounters is to stay calm. Photo: Doug Steinbock

By Kim Foley MacKinnon

Whether it’s a rabbit in a Rhode Island forest or a moose on a Maine pond, at some point in your family’s outdoor adventuring, you’re bound to meet up with a representative of the local wildlife. Before happening upon an animal of any size, it’s best if your kids learn some basic ground rules.

Nancy Ritger, who oversees naturalist programming for the AMC huts and Cardigan Lodge, advises parents to remind kids what a treat it is to cross paths with an animal, not something to fear. “Observe it, watch it feed, do what it does, and count yourself lucky,” Ritger says. “See how long you can watch without being noticed. Most animals are well aware of you long before you are of them.”

Above all, she says, “Nobody should touch anything.” Ritger’s rule of thumb—use common sense and keep your distance—is good advice wherever you are, from a neighborhood park to a national forest to your own backyard. Animals that become too accustomed to people may begin to seek out humans, expecting food or attention. That isn’t safe for animals or for people. Never, ever escalate an encounter by moving too close to a wild animal or by restricting its free movement.

While those guidelines apply to all species, Ritger knows some animals are scarier than others. To prepare kids for run-ins with bigger or toothier critters, Ritger shares the following tips. In every case, the key is to stay calm.

SNAKES
Observe snakes, like all wild animals, from a distance. Don’t attempt to capture them. Although poisonous varieties do exist in New England (see "The Endangered Timber Rattlesnake"), you’re most likely to spot the common garter snake, the widest ranging reptile in North America. In general, all snakes tend to be inconspicuous, preferring to move away from humans and hide or to lie still in the hopes of being overlooked. Although snakes are often seen as threatening, Ritger says snakes only lash out if they feel cornered or restrained. Give them plenty of space, and they’ll leave you alone.

MOOSE
Keep a respectful distance and enjoy this iconic beast from afar. In almost every instance, the moose will move off. Be especially cautious during the breeding season in fall and the calving season in spring, when bulls can be unpredictable and cows can be very protective of their calves. Moose attacks are almost unheard of, Ritger says, but getting out of the area fast is your best strategy if a moose is acting strangely. And don’t forget to keep the family dog under control.

BLACK BEARS
These large, strong wild animals should be given ample space. While aggressive and predatory behavior is very rare for black bears, which are typically wary of people, a bear may not immediately recognize you as a human and may be curious until it detects your scent. Don’t keep it guessing! Make the animal aware of you by clapping, talking, or making other sounds. Whatever you do, don’t approach bears and don’t intrude between a female and her cubs. Bears habituated to people can be a danger, Ritger says, but keeping your food secure and pets under control will help maintain the proper distance.

The most important word to teach your kids is respect. It’s a lesson that will last a few lifetimes—both your kids’ and their wild counterparts’.

LEARN MORE
For more on regional wildlife, read about timber rattlesnakes and spring peepers. You can always find tips on raising outdoor enthusiasts at greatkids.outdoors.org and browse family trips at kids.outdoors.org.