Keith McCafferty

To pass along a passion for wildlife and a strong conservation ethic, you need to instill in your kids an understanding of animals that has more to do with science than Disney. Pair that with your own enthusiasm for the woods, and the result will be a lifelong awe of the wild-and a conservation ethic that makes itself known in the field and at the polls.

[BRACKET “Assignment No. 1:”]
Bring critters home alive
Frogs, turtles, salamanders, snakes, june bugs, praying mantises, juvenile bass and bream-my kids have kept watch over an impressive array of wild-caught creatures adopted, temporarily, into their care. Bring the critters home and you will likely not abet a salmonella or rabies epidemic or harm animal populations. What you will do is foster an appreciation for the animals themselves-not just wildlife as a concept-and teach your kids that there are valid, valuable ways to interact with them other than with a trigger. Keep two 3-gallon aquariums with close-fitting wire-screen tops. At my house, we have a seven-day rule: Animals are returned to their natural habitat within a week of capture. That way, they make it back without undue stress.

[BRACKET “Assignment No. 2:”]
Pass up the shot
Pulling the trigger should be a choice. For most hunters, there comes a time when you let the deer walk not because it’s a scrawny 6-point buck. You pass up the shot because this particular animal has a regal demeanor you’ve never seen before, and though yesterday or tomorrow you wouldn’t think twice about putting a bullet in its lungs, this morning¿¿¿no. Let your son or daughter see you demonstrate what you drill into their heads: It’s not about the killing. You may find it hard to describe what you’re feeling when you let an animal walk, but with your kid there beside you, you should try.

[BRACKET “Assignment No. 3:”]
Save some habitat
Volunteer a day or two with your young hunters and they’ll gain a greater appreciation for the challenges facing wildlife and the opportunities for lending a hand. A good first step is to contact a national wildlife refuge nearby. Many use volunteers to maintain trails, plant native vegetation, and assist with bird censusing and other get-your-hands-dirty activities. Such work instills an ethic of investment in a place. It’s a big world out there, and there are ways to impact it in a big way.

[BRACKET “Assignment No. 4:”]
bring critters home dead
For young kids, particularly, hunting needs to be viewed as an integral and customary part of life-not something Dad or Mom do “out there.” Bring the ducks, squirrels, and deer home. Let the kids handle the birds. Describe the difference between primary and secondary wing feathers. Give them antlers to play with. Clean a few skulls and let them start a collection. By bringing game into the home you break the invisible boundary between the world we inhabit as humans and the world beyond the sidewalk.

[BRACKET “Assignment No. 5:”]
Be a bird nerd
Or at least try to be. Take the kids outdoors with binoculars and seine nets instead of guns and bows. Go on long hikes and turn over every downed log. Join a local birding group. Learn the calls of frogs and toads in your region. The more your kids know about nature, the more they’ll understand science-based wildlife management. And the more you teach them now, the better they’ll one day be able to put into words-and action-their love for wildlife and wild places and wet retrievers and deer in the crosshairs for another critical audience: their own kids. -T. Edward Nickens