Follow Us:
Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Why animals fear us more than we could ever fear them

Most flee on our appearance, and with good reason, as we level their forests, set fire to their habitat and spray poisons on the fields they live in

Written by Ranjit Lal | New Delhi | October 11, 2020 6:50:35 am
Ranjit Lal, Down in JungleLand, JA Baker, The Peregrine, phobia, fight-or-flight response, eye 2020, sunday eye, indian express newsItsy-bitsy terror: Our fear of creepy crawlies is usually irrational. (Photo by Ranjit Lal)

When faced with danger, every living creature responds in two ways, only one of which can be used at a time — fight or flight. Usually, when the threat is smaller and weaker, the creature will fight and vanquish it. At times, the threat is on a par with it and the animal has to decide whether it’s worth getting injured in a “do-or-die” fight, or to simply retreat and live to fight (a weaker enemy) another day. Sometimes, of course, tempers short-circuit and a fight to the death commences: usually no one comes off a clear winner. The loser may lose its life and the winner limp away, ready to be taken on by another challenger, which it is, now, in no condition to do.

Several years ago, I witnessed a catfight on my porch. After yowling hideously at each other, their tails lashing like lariats, the cats flung themselves on one another in a flurry of claws and teeth. One had its face looking like a cheese grater had been used on it, the other had its belly gouged viciously. No amount of stamping one’s feet (they were virtually at my feet) had any effect. Eventually, one slunk away under the car and the other retreated, both still yowling hideously.

We humans are no strangers to these responses. It is, indeed, prudent to be wary of big wild animals such as tigers, elephants and rhinos. But experts say that our first response when confronted by them — to turn tail and flee — is absolutely the wrong thing to do because it triggers the chase response in the animals. And, one way or another, they will catch you. So, stand up and wave your arms and yell at the bear that has just reared up roaring and wait until the rhino is almost upon you before dodging to one side and never turn your back on a big cat.

Some claim that they were born with a fear of snakes. I’m not sure this is the case, because children who are not told that snakes can be dangerous will cheerfully handle them. Our response to snakes is usually (and sadly) to go on the offensive: to fetch a stick and beat them to death and find out later whether they were venomous or not.

We nurse phobias of hundreds of things: spiders, cockroaches, scorpions, bees, wasps and other tiny creepy-crawlies. Some of these are for good reason — for example, allergy to bee stings — but most are irrational. While I wonder why people are scared of spiders, I cannot tolerate centipedes in the shower. First response: flight, followed by full-on attack with a toilet brush. These guys can bite, but they won’t kill you by a long shot.

We have caused more fear than we have experienced. True, we are afraid of large wild animals, but they are more afraid of us, because we are their most dangerous enemy. Most flee on our appearance, and with good reason. We level their forests, set fire to vast swathes of habitat, spray poisons on the fields they live in. Field biologists wanting to study wild animals have to spend years just trying to win their trust before they can begin useful work. Even in protected areas, animals are prick-eared and nervous when we show up, melting away into the forest the moment we step out of our vehicles. Why do you think it’s so difficult to see tigers in national parks?

We really are the harbingers of terror: an animal in distress is convinced that we’re about to kill it and struggles maniacally when we try to help it. Leopards trapped in wells will spit and snarl and fight viciously every inch of the way when they’re rescued. Even orphaned cubs turn into spitfires when we take them in our arms and pacify and bottle-feed them. In his classic book, The Peregrine (1967), JA Baker chillingly spells out the fear we instill in animals: “No pain, no death, is more terrible to a wild creature than its fear of man… A poisoned crow, gaping and helplessly floundering in the grass, bright yellow foam bubbling from its throat, will dash itself up again and again on to the descending wall of air, if you try to catch it. A rabbit, inflated and foul with myxomatosis will…feel the vibration of your footstep and will look for you with bulging, sightless eyes…We are the killers. We stink of death. We carry it with us. It sticks to us like frost. We cannot tear it away.”

We stink of death: not death brought about by our need to survive, but needless death from trophy hunting and mindless butchery, driven greed and nothing else. Very few animals kill beyond their immediate needs – a herd of deer will relax and graze when it knows the tiger passing by has just fed, and is not interested in them.

We really better be careful because nature is striking back. The enemy is invisible, proliferating crazily and can kill awfully in days. Sneeze and you freeze with terror, and there’s nowhere to flee. Quite simply, we’re getting a dose of our own medicine.

(Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher)

📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines

For all the latest Eye News, download Indian Express App.