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  • Writer's pictureSam

The harassment of wildlife, what we can do?

Updated: Sep 8, 2019

Due to my previous life as a budding marine biologist I still follow a lot of marine biology pages and feeds to see what’s going on in that side of the world.  A video that I’ve seen floating around today (3/6/19) is one of a big hoard of manatees all huddled near a hot spring for warmth (they to do this as the waters cool down for winter).  The area is roped off, presumably to give them a bit of space to themselves but the area is constantly surrounded by divers all jostling to get a view and glimpse of the animals.  At one point a load noise goes off and frightens them all away from their protected space, apparently this happens regularly, and the manatees being so docile just take it all on the chin. Poor guys.  Here’s the video for you to check out for yourselves

My post today is about the harassment of wildlife, and what we can do about it.

When I see these sorts of things, I don’t generally feel angry toward the individuals in the videos/pictures, I feel irritated, but I feel like directing my anger at them is pointless and won’t actually cause much real change, and the root (at least what I see as the root) is all I’m interested in tackling.  

There are four things at play here in my opinion, the way the media (particularly family friendly movies) show animal interaction, how people talk about experiences in nature online, our desperate need for connection and the need to be “special” and peoples general lack of exposure to nature & our natural curiosity.  So lets tackle these one by one:

1. The way the media (particularly family friendly movies) show animal interaction.

I only really noticed this when I was watching Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them 2 in the cinema last year, but I knew there was something about the film that was making me feel distinctly uncomfortable, as someone who studied zoology I felt like I of all people should be positively connecting with the main character, but every interaction he had with a creature (albeit a magical creature) left me feeling distinctly uncomfortable, and then it hit me:  There is a really dangerous message going out here, and though I’m sure this absolutely wasn’t anyone’s intention in the making of those films, it’s sort of sending out the message that if you’re just nice to animals they’ll love you in return, regardless of how dangerous they are!  They’ll even let you ride on their backs if you just show them in 5 minutes that you’re not like those mean other humans.  

Scene from Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald where the main character rescues a particularly dangerous creature

That last one there bothers me the most, because if an animal is scared and you are nice to it you are not entitled to its friendliness, you might mean it no harm, but it doesn’t know that, just like if a barking and aggressive dog were to run up to you you’d probably react quite negatively to that, even with the owner running after it saying “she won’t hurt you” it doesn’t matter what the owner is saying you’re the one with your life and limb at risk in front of this angry dog so you’d probably still be pretty defensive and want the dog away from you, as you would be entitled to feel, and so would any animal caught in scary position that it felt was life threatening despite the lack of harm you mean it.

Now, I’m not suggesting that just watching that one film with nothing else influencing you that you’re immediately going to run out, find a trapped rhino, give it a pat on the nose and think it’ll love you when you free it.  But this film coupled with all the others that are like it: How to train your dragon and Pete’s Dragon spring to mind, all the disney films with animal sidekicks, the tiger Raja in Aladdin, all of Mowgli’s friends in the Jungle book, the Fox and the Hound, others like Born Free.  Like damn Free Willy caused me to want to be a killer whale trainer for years (as I mentioned in a previous blog post) just so that I could be like the kid in the movie and have a killer whale best friend!  I can remember sometimes thinking “if we hit a fox in the car, she might have babies and then we can take them home and rear them!” isn’t that awful?  Granted it’s not something I would have ever followed through on and I knew it was a bad thing to think, but as I thought it I reckon there are some out there that would do it!

I’m not saying that this alone would be enough to cause the harassment of wild animals, but coupled with my other points, I certainly think it is.

2. How people talk about experiences in nature online.

This one also really gets me whenever I see it. There was a video not long ago of a woman swimming in the sea and a drone caught the moment where some orca joined her in a pretty cool chance encounter (see image to the left), lots of captions read things like “just go out into nature and amazing things will happen!” I find this sort of stuff a bad message to spread, because most of the time those kind of animal encounters do not happen as the animals have much better things to do with their time than entertain a humans fantasy of having a cool encounter.  Nature isn’t normally like that, and I really hate this idea that nature is beautiful and perfect all the time and it’s there for you to get that perfect Instagram shot.  No it’s not, nature is just there, and also we are part of nature, and technically our cities are just as part of nature as a termite mound as we, creatures of nature, built them.

I think that this idea that people like to spread that boils down to us being separate from nature is very damaging, it can make some feel they’re above it and some feel like humans are scum both of which are stupid and dangerous ideas to spread.  We are part of nature, nature is part of us, the things we create are part of nature, most other animals would have probably done similar to the planet had they got to the point we have done.  Animals aren’t these sagely creatures of wisdom that will look into your eyes and teach you about yourself and your place in life, they’re just trying to get on with their day as you are too, and spreading the idea that if you go out to nature you will have these amazing encounters and experiences is giving people unrealistic expectations, because the likelihood is not much will happen externally (maybe internally the quiet contemplation will arouse something) and you’ll hopefully just have a nice walk, and that’s it.

3. Our desperate need for connection and the need to be “special”.

As humans we need to feel connection, and we need to feel significant.  The media and advertising want to sell you stuff, and what better way to do that by playing on your basic needs?  So therefore we’re told that in order to be liked by others (connection) we need to be special and interesting (significance) this car/watch/dress/make-up/whatever will make you those things and everyone will love you!  Get the idea?  I’m sure you know this concept already.  The amount of shows where people are shown looking after exotic animals and the bonds the have with them and the amount of people who say “that’s my dream!”.  The huge amount of follows people on social media get who are around wildlife, especially if they’re interacting with these exotic animals.  All that send out a message: “others will think that I’m important and interesting if I do that!” Significance. “What an amazing thing to have a bond with an animal like that” connection.

Photo by Karim MANJRA on Unsplash

In a world where we end up starved for social connection (and no it’s not social media’s fault. Social Media is just a tool), we’ll look for it in other places, like the eyes of that wolf at the zoo.  I’m not going to go into here what I think the causes of the desperation for connection is, that’s a blog post for another time, but we are desperate for it.

4. Peoples general lack of exposure to nature + our natural curiosity.

Many of us live in cities these days, that means that our exposure to nature and animals are often pigeons, seagulls, rats, the odd urban fox and the neighbourhood cat.  There’s nothing wrong with any of these animals but as humans we are also a very curious bunch, so when people who aren’t used to seeing a particular animal come into contact with it it’s understandable due to human nature why they might want to get a closer look; and remember that thing I mentioned in point 1 about no matter how dangerous the animal is, if you’re nice to it it won’t hurt you? Yeah that one becomes a real problem right about now.

This is what’s going on when you see people taking dolphins and sharks out the water for selfies, it’s humans exercising their natural curiosity and wonder, although it’s certainly an awful thing to I don’t see this as an example of how awful people are, I see this as an example of how interested and curious we are, this is why zoos exist, not because we’re horrible creatures that want to see other animals locked up, but because we’re so naturally curious, it can just unfortunately be misdirected and mishandled.

Where many people live these days, not much room for non-manmade nature. Image by jpenrose from Pixabay.

Can you see how the combination of: films portraying that if we spend 10 minutes being nice to animals, they'll love us forever, spreading the idea that amazing encounters will happen for you if you just go outside, our need for connection and significance and our displacement from nature + our natural curiosity, can all come together to make the harassment of wildlife a big issue? And also how none of it makes us bad people, far from it, just misguided and possibly a little ignorant?

But what can we do about these things?  I still enjoy films like How to train your dragon and Free Willy will always be one of my all time favourites, so I’m not expecting a boycott or anything.  But simply managing expectations and the expectations of others, especially our children can go a long way, that and general education of course. Respecting that animals have their own autonomy and if they want nothing to do with you then they're just as entitled to that as you are when you want to be left alone.

And on a broader scale, I massively support the re-wilding of our cities. Not only is that a great way to enable animals to travel more safely through urban areas and connect up nature reserves, but people everywhere would see more of these animals and become more used to them in their day to day lives, meaning that there's less of need to harass animals out of curiosity. There's a lot more to re-wilding than just that and it of course comes with it's own potential problems, but that's also a blog post for another day. What do you think would help limit the harassment of animals whilst still enabling us to enjoy their presence?

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