Saturday, March 29, 2014

How Animal Attacks Widened My Horizons

This week…
“The dark blanket of night still shrouded the world as I lay peacefully in my tent. I had slept well, physically exhausted from the long hike in and mentally satisfied by the serenity of the wilderness that surrounded me. There was nothing more peaceful than seeing a marmot lazily peruse the grasses for food, watching an elk and her calf meander along the edge of a lake, feel the warmth of the sun, smell the crisp clean air. I’m not sure, even now why I woke… only that something must have stirred near me, barely pulling me from my slumber. I closed my eyes, thinking rest would find me again… yet my ears – ears keen from thousands of years of being an active member in (and not above) the food chain – acutely listened to find the source for the late-night disturbance. There was a sound… a hushed whisper from a padded foot stepping in the soft earth. What was it? I couldn’t see. My eyes – far weaker at night than so many other animal species – were useless. My nose picked up the faintest of smells but lacked the experience to relate the smell to anything I knew. It was my ears that I relied upon now. My ears straining and searching the dark area around me to apply an explanation to the muted sound I had heard. A huff of air on the other side of my uselessly thin tent wall and my eyes flew open, body instantly rigid, mind suddenly a useless whir of motion analyzing every last miniscule bit of sensory data and cross –referencing with cause and reaction in less time than a single beat of a hummingbird wing. I was just reaching the conclusion, the conclusion that simply said “DEFEND!” when the tent wall shook and shifted as a clamping vice seized my head. Adrenaine raged into my system and I didn’t feel anything – pressure, really – but in that fraction of an instant, I knew what was happening, what this could mean, and the single natural force of fight or flight suddenly took over.“

That event didn’t happen to me or to anyone I know, but I understand that every time I go into the wilderness, it could… or a thousand variations of essentially the same story. I don’t tell you that story to scare you… I simply tell you that story to drive home that, regardless of the likelihood, dangers are real and must be considered.

There are certain things that – by some colossal evolutionary trait – seem to get our attention. The ‘certain thing’ I’m referring to is ensconced in the physiologic fact that we, as humans and without the tools that allow us to dominate our planet, are relatively defenseless against the wild animals of our world. When I say wild animals, sure I mean the predators of our planet… but in reality we are far less suited to be in the wild than a woodchuck. Without our massively developed frontal lobe coming to play, we lack fur (for the most part), claws, canines, the natural ability to camouflage or burrow or fly or strength or speed or… yah, for the most part, we’re pretty lame. Our only success is due to our ability to adapt and overcome with technology (including massive leaps in technology like… oh… fireweaponry… and, of course, ice cream). While we are surrounded daily by the scariest of scary things (other people), that doesn’t change that fact that things like animal attacks always take headlines and strike us with an almost paralytic fear when we transfer the emotions of the event to ourselves. Our ancient instinct harbors this fear. 

My respect for that reality really helped me to appreciate the events surrounding an event I had the pleasure of attending in late March, 2014. The event was the Bear Attack Response Training, a training seminar conducted for the 15 states that comprise the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. Facilitated by some Western specialists (Brian Sommers and Mark Bruscino as well as Jim LaCour from LA), everyone came away with new and useful knowledge. The biologists and wildlife officers of the group were privy to information and instruction that will help to guide their agency in the event of a wildlife attack on a human. The attendees learned about securing scenes, collecting and analyzing evidence, lessons learned, and numerous other topics. These topics will help to ensure that our wildlife staff has the knowledge and the equipment to handle an event accurately, efficiently, and effectively if and when one happens.

For me, there were other lessons to learn. 

I am no stranger to concepts of wildlife biology or management but would never pretend or claim to know what those surrounding me do. I don’t have the same volume of specialized education and even the ‘greenhorns’ of the wildlife management world likely have more experience than I. But it is that perspective that allows me to see things in, maybe not a different light, but definitely a filtered light. I paid close attention to their training, sure… I’m the one who'll get the materials together for later reference… but I also had the opportunity to broaden my own horizons by simply listening.

As a ‘bunny hugger’ (never to a perverse extreme, but nonetheless) I have slowly and steadily come to understand things that I couldn’t know before. It was always easy to assume my opinion was the ‘right one’ because I was sheltered from a lot of the reality of “the world” and, quite honestly, sometimes when we're so certain we're "right" about our opinion, we disengage from the learning process by not listening to views that don't mirror or bolster our own. When something happens in relation to the human-animal interactions, there are usually two clear extreme sides to the public perception:

  1. Animals that ‘act up’ should be dealt with 
  2. Animals act like animals and it is arrogance when we seek retribution 

Let me warn you now… this is already a lengthy blog and it has the potential to turn into a novella because I feel the need to “explain” both sides from experiences within my slowly evolving understandings. Don’t get angry at me here, I’m in a unique position where I can try to explain both sides of the same extreme coin so just maybe something can be learned from all of this.. Plus, there are many people who fall into realms between the two extremes. First, let’s start with the 2nd number above: Animals are just being animals.

 There are a lot of people who will openly cite that human-animal conflicts are unfairly reacted to because animals are being just that: animals. In the entire animal kingdom we – humans – are the only animal species that can kill other species with impunity yet, if a species harms or kills a human, we exact vengeance. If I’m hiking in the woods and am eaten by an animal, every effort is made to find the offending animal and put it down. If I am attacked by a bear that comes into my neighborhood because my neighbors don’t practice responsible trash containment, that bear is likely put down. If I’m hunting in cougar country and attacked as prey by a cougar, it’s put down. Essentially, I’m just reiterating the initial statement: people kill animals with impunity forgetting that we are still simply a part of nature and not above it… yet we exact revenge on an animal for taking a human life. Unlike other species, we place a higher value on our own species than others and more than other species place on their own. That being said, there are many advocates that rally in support of an animal because it was being just what it is. (…for the record, that is easy for anyone to say when you’re not the victim or close to a victim.)

Now let’s look at the next view: animals are scary and should be dealt with.

There are plenty of individuals that think animals should stay on their land and not bother humans ever – maybe even not even look in our direction – and if they do, we should put them down. (This section could likely also include those who place little or no value on animal life – the root meaning simply that humans are above or not part of the animal kingdom.) That theory could have a little more heft if people weren’t always ever- expanding into wild areas (many times to get away from the congestion of people-filled cities). We expand to live, we expand to recreate... we expand.  The onus of understanding that we are expanding into the turf of the animal is on us... yet we pay it zero mind.  On top of that, in our fringe areas that border wild lands, many people don’t even take personal responsibility to do their tiny part in keeping either themselves, their neighbors, or the animals safe (much less learning about the animal behaviors) because we won’t clean up trash, put up pet foods, etc. Then, if a bear comes in to snack on the garbage buffet we simply want to holler for someone else to take care of the bear… yet we aren’t willing to take care of ourselves or pressure our neighbors to actually fix the problem. 

The people from number one are literally almost always at odds with people in number two. But then you have the wildlife management professionals who firmly reside somewhere in the middle of those extremes.

I would venture a guess that anyone who gets involved in a career of wildlife management does so for a love and passion for nature, wildlife, and animals. It has to be for the passion because animals aren’t exactly the best paying customers… so it’s not a high-revenue career field. So what happens when you have a sincere and passionate love of nature and wildlife but you have to also consider that you literally work for (via licensure and other income sources) for people. On top of that, you have this entire sociopolitical arena that exists in the media, social media, and everything else with constant verbalization on how everyone thinks these folks should do their job. It’s a balancing act… first protect the resources but also consider the human elements and a billion other people you answer to and things you answer for. I don’t envy these folks. No matter what they do, there is essentially no pleasing people because they always have two extreme sides (and everyone in-between) that exist.

In the end, I have broadened my horizons. In regard to my personal stance, I have landed somewhere in the middle where I have deep rooted “animal is just being an animal” tendencies followed by understanding that agencies do what they must do to satisfy a need for resource conservation and management coupled with human safety factors. It’s a tight-rope that I am glad they – and not I – walk. I respect the pressure they feel – from every single side – and the stress that goes into every decision that they make. For that, I thank them… for making the decisions I don’t have to make and holding firm regardless of the repercussions. Don’t misunderstand… that doesn’t mean that I’m not still an animal girl… but don’t ever think they aren’t animal people, too.

Just some food for thought.

Now go outside and enjoy nature (responsibly!).