A while back, I had a conversation with a vegan who thought it was wrong for children to catch fireflies in jars. Her reasoning was, that the flashes were mating signals and we would be interrupting their love lives. "How would you like to just fall in love and then somebody grabs you and puts you in a cage?" Interesting anthropomorphism, and a perfect example of how our society confuses sex with love. But I highly doubt that fireflies actually fall in love. A Black Widow spider certainly doesn't -- she EATS her mate. So does a praying mantis sometimes. Nature in the raw is often far from romantic.
Thinking back to my own childhood, we regularly caught fireflies, watched them flash in the jar in our rooms after lights out, then released them in the morning. I can't say what effect this had on the fireflies, but I do know that my sister and I learned a lot from watching the various bugs, toads, snakes, and other things we caught and kept in captivity for a while. From our "catch and release" activities, we discovered a lot about nature firsthand.
We learned that you can't just throw any old leaves in with the caterpillars, you need the right species of plant and a way to keep the leaves fresh (which we accomplished by covering the mouth of a small jar of water with foil, then poking holes for the plant stems. The food stayed fresh without caterpillars falling into the water and drowning.) We learned what toads, snakes and turtles eat, and how they eat it, where to find it. And we also learned how to look up and identify the things we found. By 5th grade, I was reading college-level biology books. And I must admit that I also collected insects in the usual way, mounting them on pins in boxes and attracting the attention of the high school biology teacher, who invited me to go on a museum entomology field trip. Although I no longer collect, I still love entomology.
So I find myself wondering if kids today, who are often forbidden by well-meaning parents to do this kind of hands-on learning, are really discovering very much about the outdoors. Have we gotten so politically correct about nature that we are defeating the purpose by creating a barrier between children and nature? Lately there has been a public service ad running about "discover the forest," where two kids wander into the woods, turn over a log and look at some bugs, and then Shrek come along and eats one (a bug, that is, not a child!) A cute fantasy, but in real life, how many parents would let their kids turn over a log in the first place? (If you do, please teach them to put it back as it was when they are done, so you don't destroy the homes of things that live there.)
When I was a kid, there would have been no need for such an advertisement. You could hardly keep me out of the small suburban woodlot we called our "forest." Contrast that with my 8-year-old grandson, who has been spending daycare time with us in the country this summer, and who, although he has 15 acres here to play and explore in, rarely goes outside on his own. Too boring. When he first came, he could not tell a daisy from a sunflower, but has gradually learned some basics about the outdoors. Today, we both looked up an unfamiliar purple flower and learned it was a species of vervain. When we are outside, we watch things happening in nature, such as bees pollenating squash flowers or wasps hunting caterpillars among the broccoli -- things he would never stop and watch on his own. One day, I took him into the back woods and then told him to lead me home. He did -- by following the sound of our roosters crowing and our geese honking. "See?" I said, "You won't get lost if you pay attention to what is around you."
So is it ethical to catch and collect things? I think it depends on how you do it. Certainly it is wrong to pull wings off flies or leave animals starving or dying of boredom in cages. But I see nothing wrong with letting kids keep a toad for a few days, then release it back into it own environment. When I find a snake or turtle, I bring it in the house for the kids to see. Who knows? Maybe the snake benefits spirtually from having helped a child learn more about the world. In the long run, maybe a little reptilian inconvenience now might well save that snake's home in the future.