Sunday, 6 September 2009

Wildlife and stuff

Read in the local news about a little girl being pulled off a wharf by a Harbour seal while her father was fishing. Fortunately she was wearing a life jacket and bobbed to the surface. The theory goes that the Seals, so emboldened by being hand fed at said wharf, decided to try and get a little further up the food supply chain. Maybe the little girl was trying to pet the Seal and it took offence. In short, it bit her.

In a local magazine recently, a columnist wrote an article about how to handle an encounter with a Bear. A reader, a professional Hunter and guide, wrote in reply and basically told the columnist that he was talking a load of eco-rubbish and that columnists advice would result in the untimely demise of anyone who was daft enough to follow it. One of the pieces of advice that the hunter rubbished was the 'roll over and play dead' item on the columnists list. The hunter indicated that anyone following such advice would be readily killed by any species of bear. He quite vehemently indicated that if a bear is that hungry, you're lunch.

I would tend to trust advice from an experienced hunter and guide rather than some deskbound columnist, and apart from giving any bear a generous chance to walk away, would be fully prepared to give any such creature a jolly good reason not to think of me as an al fresco dinner. While Mister Mrs or Ms Bear might be hungry for a little extra something to stock up before Winter's long kip, this particular hyper evolved monkey carries a big stick when out in the woods and would make the bill for trying to lunch on his errant hide very steep indeed. However, he is quite happy to live and let live, but don't push your luck buster.

A hunting shooting and fishing friend once said to me "Walt Disney should have been shot for crimes against humanity." Referring to the twee anthropomorphic animations and wildlife 'documentaries' issuing from that studio. I'm not so sure. I think Disney, along with the Harman-Ising animations simply filled a niche in the human psyche. A highly atavistic niche at that where certain animals are sometimes almost instinctively regarded as avatars. Gods in animal form, by whose contact it is possible to obtain the animal's 'power'. People have pictures of Wolves, Eagles and Bears etc in their houses for very similar reasons.

Legends of the local Coast Salish peoples say that a black bear with a white blaze on its chest is a creature of portent. The opportune arrival of particular animals is seen, even by relatively civilised people as full of meaning. This meaning will be divined regardless of the actual reason for said animal's presence. Yet cultures down the ages have manipulated such 'omens' for individual advantage. As such, I am led to conclude that animal 'omens' relating to the supernatural are meaningless. For a hypothetical example, let's say the Chief of a clan falls ill and the shaman says "Hey guys, remember that funny looking fish Ug caught last month? The moment I saw it I knew trouble was coming." Or making repeated unproveable assertions and then claiming success when an unrelated unfortunate incident comes to pass. Remind you of anything?

As one with a healthy regard for both his own skin, and a thoroughly rural upbringing I learned as a boy that animals, even so called 'tamed' domestic species are not little humans in different form. They do not speak words, and their thinking is in my observation, very simple and follows it's own agenda. Animals are not like the fairytale sort, not like the rabbits of 'Watership Down', where the animal characters have human speech, thoughts and emotions. Humans to animals are by turn a source of fear, threat, curiosity and in various ways, food.

In addition, animals don't have fingers and opposable thumbs to manipulate their world like we do, all they have is their mouths, tongues, and Didja see the teeth? Even 'gentle' herbivores can deliver a nasty bite. Hippo's are vegetarians, yet more people in Africa are killed by those 'Water Horses' than any by carnivorous crocodile. Sharks 'taste test' surfers because from underneath a paddling surfer resembles their favourite entrée of Seal or Turtle. As an additional example, Sheep have been known to sink their grazing incisors into people if they get too cheeky. Same for any animal, domesticated or not. As a five year old I took a highly educational nip from a pet rabbit, and at age nine from a colt. Those two occasions permanently cured me of any anthropomorphic inclinations.

My Dog, to whom I am pack leader and provider of all good things, puts up with my occasional strangeness just to sit at my feet while I work. Why? It's how dogs are. In the wild they are pack animals and live in tribes with a particular pecking order. His behaviour to me is merely a mild perversion of his Lupine forbears. It developed from a highly successful survival strategy. Yes he's a bright dog, and does understand maybe a hundred words or so of what I say, but most of it is in my tone and body positioning. How do I know? Because certain words, no matter how they are delivered, always evoke a particular response from him. That implies aural pattern recognition specific to language. However, his intelligence is limited, especially when it comes to repeating mistakes. On the other hand, when it comes to unashamed scrounging, he could rival Einstein. He's a dog, what can I say?

Humans, particularly urban humans, seem to have a common idea that anything with four legs and fur is 'cute', which in extremis leads to incidents like the one at the Vancouver Wharf. A game warden at Yellowstone Park stopped a woman painting her ten year old son's face with honey in order to encourage a black bear to lick it for a photo, seemingly unaware that Mr Bear would be sorely tempted to do a bit more than lick a lump of deliciously honey basted protein popsicle given the opportunity.

On a more domestic note, how many people have been bitten or clawed by their 'tame' pets for overstepping the mark, or simply being late with the habitual meal. Hundreds of incidents every day should teach us that the species we tempt into our homes and gardens do not think like us and never will. Yet we ignore, we project, we rationalise, we apply incomplete and childish thinking which leads to occasionally fatal human / animal encounters.

It is said in some circles that we are a modern society in neolithic bodies. I find myself agreeing, but only to a point. Observe human culture, the way it functions against logic and experience, and you will be drawn to the same conclusion as I am; that we are not part of a 'modern' or 'rational' society. If we were, Anthropomorphism would be extinct. We are primitive and tribal, it is part of our nature. If asked the question 'what is man?'; my most succinct answer would be 'Bipedal tribal predator', which to me seems to tick all the necessary boxes if you exclude aberrations. Skin us down to our cultural bones, and that is what you will find.

What this really means is that we don't apply logic and experience when it comes to other non human species, or anything else. Our frontal lobes are not always fully engaged. The end result is human children being seen as a food source by wildlife, because hey, protein is protein.

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