I like to keep a list of all the things I’ll eventually forget to buy for my survival kit. With hurricane season fast approaching, I checked out Ready.gov, the government website launched in 2003 “to educate Americans to prepare for (and respond to) emergency situations.” As usual, I soon found myself in the kid’s section because there’s nothing more interesting than the way a government tries to talk about scary issues to kids.
Ever since I saw how Walt Disney went to work for the U.S. government during World War II (making kids’ books to promote war bonds or having Daffy Duck destroy a Japanese air base in a movie short), I’ve been fascinated by how we communicate fear to our children. Sometimes it’s the benign Smokey the Bear warning kids about forest fires, while at others it’s an animated Bert the Duck — they must have seen Daffy’s success in Japan during the war — telling kids how to survive a nuclear war in 1951. (Spoiler Alert: You duck and cover. Evidently, hiding under a desk fools the radiation into thinking you’re invisible.)
After 9/11, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security unveiled a readiness program for terrorist attacks and other catastrophes that was aimed at kids. It was called Ready Kids and featured the Mountain Lion Family (Rex, Purrcilla, Rory, and Hector — “a real smarty-pants … Rex’s best friend and right-hand bird!”) as they prepared for doomsday. After all, what better way to prepare our young for the dangers of runaway nukes or terrorist cells than by having them study a musical a family of cats.
It was hard to tell how the info they provided on each family member would help us survive the coming nuclear winter: “Purrcilla enjoys taking her box of pencils and paper outdoors to sketch scenes from nature. She loves the peace and quiet.” (Lucky for her because they might be the only survivors — she’ll get plenty of peace and quiet.) Rory “has lots of pets, including an owl and fish!” (Those pets that survive will make a great meal.)
Despite their lack of opposable thumbs, they were a mammalian Partridge Family: Rex played the ax (“Rex made his own guitar from a hollow tree!”), Purrcilla sang (“With a voice that ‘purrs,’ melting the hearts of all who hear”), and Rory played the drums (“she always jumps at the chance to play with her mom, dad, and friends”). Their backstory was light on radiation pills and the loss of cell phone reception, which might have been the reason they’ve been quietly retired. Well, that and the fact they’re actually endangered to the brink of extinction due to habitat loss. If I want to learn how to survive disaster, I’m going to study cockroaches.
The mountain lions have since been replaced by a group of hip kids with impossibly happy faces who explain what to do in the event of natural disasters. However, there are no references to the post-9/11 world of terrorist threats or attack readiness. This seems like a glaring omission until I think about Bert the Turtle, and I’m reminded that the government does a much better job of scaring adults than it ever did of calming children.