We have all heard the stories. Tales that haunt our dreams and strike fear into those that fall victim to the folklore. Demons of the night, with glowing red eyes, that stand just outside the campfire light, waiting for their opportunity to kill. Although these stories are entertaining, the truth is lost. Yes, wild animals can be dangerous, but so can a Chihuahua and for me personally, I have been attacked by more then one Chihuahua.
For hundreds, possibly thousands of years, wild animals have a history of being demonized. Our ignorance is to blame. We knew little about the animal kingdom and were quick to jump to conclusions and make uneducated assumptions. For example, the “Killer Whale” is not a whale at all. It is in fact a dolphin, and it’s latin name “Orca Orcinus” provides no redemption for it’s historic reputation as this translates to “Demon Dolphin”. In the late 1950’s perceived competition with sports fisherman and a general fear of whales led to the Department of Fisheries publishing a letter dated July 28, 1960.
“It is recommended that one .50 calibre machine with tripod mounting be used (at Seymour Narrows) with ball ammunition only- If the whales approach from the westward, the method of attack would be to open fire when they approach in an endeavor to turn the herd back and so prevent them from entering Seymour Narrows and continuing on to the Campbell River area. Should the whales approach from the Campbell River side, it would be preferable to withhold fire until they have passed to the westward of the gun position to prevent turning back towards Campbell River.”
I think this is a clear example of our early ignorance. It was not until the late 1970’s that extensive study of these Orcas began. It is interesting to note that there has never been a recorded Orca attack on a human in the wild, only in captivity.
Another example is the “big bad” Wolf. Wolves were once common in Europe but over centuries of fear, the population was decimated. This fear followed the settlers to the new world and many places in North America lost their once rich wolf populations. Wolf culls were a common practice in the old days and in places like Yellowstone Park, Wolf populations were totally wiped out. This led to a growing Elk populations that threatened many plant species and created erosion problems around creeks and rivers due to the fact that the Elk congregated there without fear of predation. From 1995 to 1997, 41 wolves were reintroduced into the park and Elk populations equalized and riparian zones repaired themselves and prevented further erosion. I think this is an amazing example of an intact ecosystem that supports itself and how human intervention disturbs the natural balance.
Both Wolves and Orcas are in fact creatures that share many of the same traits as humans. Extremely social, family oriented, and the ability to display many different emotions and personalities within their groups. They are not the evil killers they were once thought to be. I know that when I wake up in the morning my first thought is not “hmmmm, what can I kill today?” And I believe this is not the case with animals. I think their thoughts would be similar to ours. Daily concerns such as caring for their young and giving them life skills necessary for survival, having adequate shelter, eating, drinking, socializing, and playing. And, just like humans, if any of these things are threatened, the nasty side comes out and it is usually identified through body language.
Being careful and well prepared to deal with a situation that may arise is a good idea in a wilderness setting as much as in a the city. It goes without saying, do not walk through Central Park in New York, alone, in the middle of the night, wearing a rolex watch and a pocket full of cash. Also, I would not walk alone, in a Bear or Wolf habitat, wearing a suit made out of bacon. Both places are potentially dangerous but can be visited if you use common sense. This, of course, cannot account for flukes of nature. Being at the wrong place at the wrong time is always a possibility when dealing with wild animals or humans. This should not stop us from visiting wilderness settings just as it does not stop us from driving our cars daily. If we are careful, take our time and are well prepared to deal with an emergency, we are able to do it without fear of a negative outcome. Comparatively, attacks from wild animals are rare compared to the daily risks we take, so this should not be a deciding factor wether or not to go into the wilderness. Here are some useful tips that may seem like common sense. It is best to travel with others.
There is safety in numbers. Always let someone know where you are going and when you expect to return. The high profile stories of Christopher McCandless (Into the Wild) and Aron Ralston (127 hours) could have had better outcomes if these first two rules had been followed although the books and movies probably would not have been as dramatic. Carry a first aid kit.....seems reasonable. I always carry bear spray (pepper spray) with me. Although I have never had to use it, it provides me with peace of mind. It is important to note that bear spray is only useful if it is accessible. “Excuse me Mr. Bear.... would you mind postponing your 40 km/hr charge while I dig around in the bottom of my backpack for my bear spray?......thanks” Be respectful of wild animals and give them space. Most times it is easy to tell if an animal is uncomfortable with your presence and there are also many books on the subject of interpreting body language that will help you make good decisions. Getting close to wild animals may get you the best picture but may also come with undesirable results. One result may be an attack but it may also contribute to habituation of the animal. If the animal loses a healthy fear of humans this could lead it to becoming a problem animal and the end result for a problem animal is to be terminated which is an outcome that neither the animal nor the photographer wants. Habituation is one of the main reasons an animal becomes dangerous. When the animal is weighing the risk vs reward it can make a bad choice and enter a campsite because in the past it was successful at acquiring food. So always make sure you food is properly stored to prevent habituation and thus preventing an animal from becoming dangerous. An example of this was the wolf population on Vargas Island which became habituated because of multiple encounters with humans and they gradually lost their fear which lead to an attack. One of the main defenses to this problem is to scare wildlife away so that they do not feel comfortable around humans. Never run away. This can trigger their instinct to chase and hunt.
My point is that we only fear that which we do not understand and that understanding comes from experience. So get out there, be knowledgeable, be prepared and leave the bacon suit at home.