By: Wendy Rhein
Recently I took the boys to the zoo for a frigid afternoon of exploration. It was a cold and bright Sunday afternoon and they were bursting with the unspent frantic energy only small children can manifest on a day that most adults would spend melting into a couch under a blanket with a good book or a Godfather movie marathon. Or both.
The National Zoo is our neighborhood zoo, which makes us very lucky. On the average spring or summer day, the zoo is crawling with people, standing three-deep at an exhibit. On this January day, it was nearly empty, not surprisingly. We were surprised by how many of the animals were outside, especially the warm climate animals like the elephants, lions, and camels. The pandas, those primadonnas, were inside with their catered lunch.
My sons ran all over the zoo, which had the dual benefit of keeping them warm and wearing them out. Nate has recently started reading with ease so he read all the signs to me when we stopped to view an animal. When we reached the tigers and lions, he immediately ran to the sign graphically describing how the lion’s jaw works. I, however, read this sign first:
Single Parents OR a Family Affair? I read it again. I laughed. Then I got angry. Wait a minute. Is the National Zoo saying that a single parent-headed family is NOT a family? I read the text. Yep, it looks like the pithy copy writers for the zoo are suggesting that a lion cub is part of a family when fed and protected by a possibly-unrelated pride of lions, regardless of parentage, while a tiger cub is raised by a single parent who feeds, protects, and cares for the children she birthed. I can understand that they want to point out the differences. But was it necessary to call only one a family?
My inner tiger mom came out, claws bared. Here I was, a single parent, on a Sunday afternoon taking an educational and entertaining trip to the zoo, my cubs in tow. I did a gut check: am I overreacting because I’m cold and would rather be watching The Godfather Part 2 that I was sure must be on TCM by now? No. Did I misunderstand? Maybe they couldn’t come up with a way to explain the pride versus parent model in a way that the average 6-year-old could relate. I re-read the sign. Is there another way they could have worded this and gotten the same point across? Damn straight. Was I just being overly sensitive? I was ready to chalk it up to this last one when Nate read the sign out loud. In his voice, it sounded even more offensive to me. He looked at me and said, “But we’re a family too. That’s weird.” My own 6-year-old test case.
I emailed a complaint to the zoo and the Smithsonian, its parent (or is that familial?) organization, suggesting that the zoo revisit its signage to recognize BOTH as a viable family. I shared the story of the afternoon with a few other people who agreed it was offensive and unfortunate. My sister received a banal response to her own complaint to the zoo but to date I have heard nothing. I’m considering what, if any, next steps I want to take. On one hand it is a sign with very little relevance in my day to day life. My kids know we are a family, regardless of what the Smithsonian’s text writer says. On the other hand, it is a sign that thousands of single-parent-raised kids are seeing every year when they bound off a DC school bus or run up to see with baited breath, hoping to see the tigers and lions on the hilltop. The tiger mom in me wants to stand up for all of those kids, which, ironically enough, makes me more of a lion mom in the zoo’s opinion.