For as long as I can remember, I have loved being outside. As a kid after school my friends and I would spend our time hiking up the hills in our back yards, watching for birds, and catching all sorts of critters we brought home to show our parents and then let go. I never wanted to keep the animals we got, I remember always thinking that they had to go back home to the woods we got them from. I was always the first to rescue animals, nurse them back to health, and then let them go back tot he wild. I’m sure my parents would even be the first to admit that when I didn’t go to vet school, they were surprised. I just get queazy around blood, so you can see how this wouldn’t work out.
In all my years of turtle across the road saving and hurt bird catching, I always had an understanding that my interference should be minimal. That if i reeeally wanted to help them, I would respect their wildness. This tough lesson was learned when an adorably cute female cardinal was caught in my grandparent’s squirrel feeder… and when I went to free the bird it very promptly bit down on the flap between my thumb and my pointer finger. And drew blood.
So for visuals: we have the trapped bird in a giant glass jar feeder, my young and blissful innocence trying to help, bleeding hand, free bird, queazy kid who doesn’t like blood, and now I am angry at the “stupid bird” 3 mins ago I was so excited to save. As my grandfather studied my very superficial wound that cut me oh so deeply on an emotional and spiritual level, he explained to me that the reason I loved that bird was the same reason why it bit me…. because it was wild. He went on to tell me that everything is a little wild and that while we sometimes want to take that away we never should. That wild streak is the essence of that animal, it is in every sense of the term an animals reason for being… for living… for existing.
But even before this lesson, I knew you shouldn’t feed the bears at Smokey Mountain National Park, that you should pick up your trash, and that only you can prevent forest fires. Call me a little nature loving hippie, but I was after all raised by my grandfather to love nature. And like any good Native American man he taught me the biggest nature lesson: respect.
As I’ve grown and my grandfather has since passed away, you can still find me picking up trash on nature trails and observing nature from afar. I still save turtles crossing the road and I cry even harder when now when I watch documentaries about how our environment is losing its battle to survive.
Recently, Tim and I joined friends on a trip to Weeki Wachee Springs for a day of kayaking and old Florida feels. While the choice was between Silver Springs and Weeki Wachee, with Sam and Olivia being in Tampa though the choice was easy. We had amazing time and the day was perfect! But the part that sticks out most to me, was a chance encounter with an adorable little guy who decided to jump into my kayak.
So, about this heart breaking raccoon… we had heard other kayakers mention a raccoon incident when we stopped to jump from a swing. I didn’t think much of it since we were after all going down a river in the middle of old Florida surrounded by wildlife. By this point too we had also seen a manatee and her adorably tiny baby!!! So, to have someone say something about a raccoon didn’t seem too far out of the ordinary. Fast forward a few more turns around the river bend and on a branched hanging over the water was my raccoon friend to be made.
We know he jumped into my kayak, the title of the post gives that away, right? Well, yes, he jumped into my kayak. As i was going around the bend and under his branch, the current brought me riiiiight up to the edge of the bank. As I tried to get back to on course my friend had scurried down the branch and was right in front of me. He then, came close and looked at me before he proceeded to hop into the back part of my kayak. Now, I am in a kayak with a backpack full of electronics with a raccoon that has just jumped ship. He then proceeds to take his “grabby hand” (as I have named it) and literally pets my arm before looking at my with the biggest sad eyes I have ever seen.
Now comes the heart-break. Once the initial fear wore off after he had made his way back to the shore, my heart shattered. This kinda thin looking little guy was literally begging me for food… for junk food, crap he shouldn’t even know existed. He broke my heart with eyes that are probably normal for a racoon but in the emotional context of our encounter they were sad.
I couldn’t help but feel guilty about how his wildness hadn’t been respected. He wasn’t scared of me at all, while I on the other hand was terrified our day might end in a rabies shot from the local hospital. As we sat there paddling down river I thought of all the people before me that had fed him, not respected his wildness, and ultimately shaped him into a little critter that doesn’t fear humans anymore. I sat there, idly paddling down river, heartbroken by this little guy who was more eager to be my friend than I was to be his. And suddenly I saw myself thinking about what responsibilities we have as tourists.
No matter what kind of tourism you partake in, you as an outsider have some sort of responsibility. In ecotourism specifically, you have a responsability to nature. You are the outside in the natural realm you are visiting so you have a responsability to yourself, mother nature, and others to leave it better than when you came. You are the invader in nature… So what does this look like?
To me, that means you pick up the trash you see even if it isn’t yours. It looks a lot like spying on someone, you don’t want anyone else to know you were there. So, you don’t feed the animals or get too close. You leave footprints on the sand as the only mark you’ve been there. It also means that even though I was dying to see a manatee, I stayed in my kayak and didn’t even get a picture because I was in so much awe of what was going on around me, or rather beneath me.
Ecotourism is become a bigger and bigger industry each year. From tours down the Amazon River to camping deep into the wilderness under the stars, the desire to see nature in its purest form is becoming the go-to choice for vacations. As it grows so will the impact on nature…