Nature Detectives

A Grade 1/2 Workshop on Animal Characteristics and Adaptations

Tracking Wild Animals

Tracking wild animals doesn't require a trip to the wilderness - there are many animals in the wild spaces of an urban environment. Some of these animals are easy to see, but a lot of them are not. Even though these wild animals may be hard to spot, they leave clues everywhere that they go. Wild animals are often in motion - searching for food or hunting, evading predators, defending their territory, building shelter, looking for water, playing, exploring, and caring for and teaching their young. They may swim, crawl, climb, fly, creep, bound or trot through their habitat. As they do, they leave behind tracks, scat, and signs. They make footprints in the snow and mud. They may chew plants or drill holes in trees. Their feathers and fur and dried skin fall off. They may dig underground tunnels or build shelters and nests. They may store food caches. They leave behind their droppings, or "scat".
There is an incredible amount to learn about the subject of tracking animals. Through tracks, scat, and other signs, the secret lives of wild animals can be revealed. Finding signs of the presence of wild animals can be challenging, but also extremely exciting and rewarding! This is especially true in urban areas, where many people feel disconnected with nature and wild animals.

Animals in Captivity

Many roadside zoos in Ontario are unregulated and lack simple necessities such as appropriate veterinary care, appropriate space for animals, features and furnishings in enclosures that provide stimulation and enrichment, and even appropriate nutrition. While some zoos may be working hard to improve the conditions of captivity, artificial enclosures still cannot compare to natural habitats. In the wild, animals hunt for food and water, find mates, raise families, evade predators, find or build shelters, explore their territory, and communicate with others. They may fly, swim, dig, leap, run or climb. Many species develop deep social and familial bonds, and some express many of the same emotions we do.

 Unfortunately, many animals are held in captive environments in exhibits that prevent them from doing these innate behaviours, which causes boredom, stress, frustration, and neurosis. When wild animals can't act naturally, they often develop abnormal behaviours, such as pacing or rocking, inactivity and self-mutilation.
Captive environments often lack:
  • Enough space. This is especially true for larger animals, like polar bears and elephants who, in the wild, travel over huge territories searching for food.
  • Places to hide or find shelter. In the wild, animals may hide to avoid predators, to give birth and raise their young, and to rest. Often, captive animals will suffer from anxiety and stress when confined without adequate privacy.
  • Things to do. A small barren enclosure provides no opportunity for animals to explore, climb, play, hide, and investigate. Without anything challenging or interesting in their environment, animals may become inactive, or may suffer signs of neurosis, such as repetitive behaviours.
  • Appropriate social groupings. Many animals develop strong social bonds and live their entire lives with others. Female elephants, for example, live in family groupings for life, and form deep emotional attachments to their herd.
  • Natural substrate. An enclosure with concrete floors prevents an animal from performing natural behaviours, such as digging or burrowing. Unnatural substrate can also cause health problems for certain animals. For example, wire mesh may cause pain and foot infections.
  • Correct climate. Many animals are uniquely adapted to a specific climate, and suffer as a result of having to live in an inappropriate environment. Desert animals may be exposed to heavy rain and frigid temperatures, while Arctic animals may have to live in a hot climate with no relief from heat and humidity.

Aside from the problems inherent in keeping wild animals in unnatural habitats, there can be other problems too. There aren't enough laws protecting the welfare of wild animals, and many animals in Ontario's unregulated roadside zoos live in horrendous conditions. In the province of Ontario, for example, no licence is required to keep lions, tigers, bears or many other species in captivity, whether as a pet or in a zoo. These animals can easily be acquired without any proof of training or experience. As well, every year animals in zoos escape from their cages and endanger lives. Other animals are kept in inappropriate enclosures that put zoo visitors and zoo staff at risk. Zoos breed animals, and although these efforts may be part of a conservation program, they may also be an attempt to attract more visitors with baby animals. This practice creates a surplus of older, unwanted animals, who may end up in roadside zoos or circuses, or auctioned into the exotic pet trade or canned hunts.




Activities and Curriculum Connections

This workshop is designed to support the Grade 1 curriculum, Needs and Characteristics of Living Things, and the Grade 2 curriculum, Growth and Changes in Animals. Students will learn about the distinct characteristics and adaptations of animals by studying the tracks, scat and signs that they leave behind. The workshop places a special emphasis on sustainability and stewardship, and encourages students to protect wild animals and the places where they live.



Group discussion about animals in wild and captive environments

  • Identify personal action that they themselves can take to help maintain a healthy environment for living things, including humans (Grade 1)
  • Describe the characteristics of a healthy environment, including clean air, water and nutritious food, and explain why it is important for all living things to have a healthy environment (Grade 1)
  • Describe how showing care and respect for all living things helps to maintain a healthy environment (Grade 1)
  • Identify positive and negative impacts that different kinds of human activity have on animals and where they live, form an opinion about one of them, and suggest ways in which the impact can be minimized or enhanced (Grade 2)

Animal Tracks:

  • IDing tracks
  • making a plaster cast
  • creating a tracking book

 Animal Signs


  • Investigate and compare the physical characteristics of a variety of plants and animals, including humans (Grade 1)
  • Identify the physical characteristics of a variety of plants and animals (Grade 1)
  • Identify environment as the area in which something or someone exists or lives (Grade 1)
  • Observe and compare the physical characteristics and the behavioural characteristics of a variety of animals, including insects (Grade 2)
  • Investigate the ways in which a variety of animals adapt to their environment and/or to changes in their environment (Grade 2)
  • Identify and describe major physical characteristics of different types of animals (Grade 2)
  • Describe an adaptation as a characteristic body part, shape, or behaviour that helps a plant or animals survive in its environment (Grade 2)

Animal Scats

  • Describe how the things plants and animals use to meet their needs are changed by their use and returned to the environment in different forms (Grade 1)


Books about Animal Tracks and Signs:

Wild Tracks! A Guide to Nature's Footprint
Written by Jim Arnosky (2008)
A great introduction to tracking North American animals. Tracks are categorized (bear, deer, cat, etc) and presented in a two-page spread. On one side, a full-colour painting shows an animal and its tracks in a natural setting; on the other side, pencil sketches and text explain the tracks and how to interpret them. Features life-size prints, unlike most other tracking books. Younger children will enjoy the pictures, but the book is geared to an older reader.
Tracks, Scats, and Signs.
Written by Leslie Dendy and illustrated by Linda Garrow (2000)
An excellent introductory resource to the clues that wild animals leave everywhere they go. Includes forest, field and pond animals. Detailed and colourful illustrations accompany the text. Non-fiction. Ages 9-12.
How to be a Nature Detective
Written by Millicent Selsam and illustrated by Marlene H. Donnelly (1998)
An introduction to tracking animals by finding footprints and other clues. This book is not a guide, but a story-book.
Guessing-game format. Ages 4-8.
Animal Tracks of Ontario
Written by Ian Sheldon (1997)
A great guide for children, teachers, parents, explorers and naturalists. Includes excellent illustrations of the animals, detailed drawings of fore and hind prints, stride patterns, easy track identification, and animal behaviour.
Animal Tracks
Written by Arthur Dorros (1991)
With simple text and a guessing-game format, the author explores the animal tracks in a forest. Animal tracks include raccoon, deer, fox, beaver, and more. Includes directions for making plaster casts, track tracings, and track "traps". Story-book format. Ages 4-8.

Books about Urban Wildlife:

The Tale of Pale Male: A True Story
Written by Jeanette Winter (2007)
A colourful picture book that tells the true story of two red-tailed hawks that build their nests on the side of a Manhattan apartment building. When disgruntled residents have the nest removed because of the bird droppings and animal remains, protestors rally in support of the hawks and the nesting spot is eventually restored.
One Small Square: Backyards
Written by Donald Silver and illustrated by Patricia J. Wynne (1997)
Part of the One Small Square series of nature activity books, which encourages readers to make observations and discoveries within one small square area of unique habitat. In Backyard, readers are introduced to a wide variety of animals that exist in urban environments. An excellent reference text that includes activities and equipment. Ages 7-12.
City Foxes
Written by Susan Tweit and photographed by Wendy Shattil (1997)
The story of a den of newborn red foxes and their parents, living in a Denver cemetery. Wendy Shattil's vivid photographs follow the story of the foxes as the kits grow up in their urban environment. Includes numerous fox facts.
The Secret Place
Written by Eve Bunting and illustrated by Ted Rand (1996)
A well-written and illustrated picture book about the wild creatures that gather along a riverbank in the heart of a city. Ages 4-8.

Books About Captivity:

Written by Wendy A. Lewis (2007)
A short chapter book about a young girl who finds a frog and decides to keep it in a box. She comes to realize that it belongs in the wild, and releases it back at the pond.
Wild Animals in Captivity
Written by Rob Laidlaw (2008)
Rob Laidlaw, founder and director of Zoocheck Canada, has written an informative and eye-opening book that raises important questions about the confinement of wild animals in zoos around the world. He compares the wild and captive lives of polar bears, orcas, elephants and great apes, and explains why they are so ill-suited for lives in captivity. Alternatives to zoos are provided, as well as a checklist for assessing zoos. Intended for ages 9-12.

How Can You Help Wild Animals? 


Host a fundraiser to help animals in roadside zoos. Your money can be donated to Zoocheck Canada to help us with our campaign to close Ontario's worst roadside zoos. Fun ideas include a bake sale featuring animal cookies.
Instead of visiting wild animals in a roadside zoo, consider visiting wild animals in the city instead. Look for animal tracks, scat or signs. Create a nature journal documenting what you find. In Toronto, Tommy Thompson Park and the Don Valley Brick Works are great places to start.

Create an awareness campaign about roadside zoos in your school, local library, or community centre. Create posters, brochures or bookmarks to help others learn about the plight of animals in sub-standard zoos.
If your class goes on a trip to a roadside zoo, consider conducting a zoo investigation. Create your own checklist, including things like the size of the cage, the flooring, the furnishings and structures in the enclosure, the behaviour of the animals, and the climate. Make sure to share the results of your investigation with the zoo, the humane society, wildlife protection groups like Zoocheck and your local government.
Consider visiting an animal sanctuary instead of a roadside zoo. Sanctuaries provide permanent homes to animals that can't be released back into the wild.

How Can You Help Animals in the Wild?

Wild animals need wild spaces. Help protect and preserve the ravines, creeks, forests and rivers in your city. Join local campaigns to clean up the environment!