Monday, November 7, 2011

Human Predator Perception

Some of my hockey fans will be depressed that this post isn't hockey related... Half the time when I say "predators" I mean the Nashville NHL team and the other half of time I mean the literal carnivores.  I'll try to use a certain Inuit player to mesh hockey with nature... but it's a far reach to tie both predators together, I promise.

Human perceptions play a pivotal role in predator management - whether you're discussing current populations or reintroduction.  Humans have an inherent fear and bias towards apex predators that really needs to be looked at.  The success or failure of a reintroduced species, for example, relies on how the humans of the area perceive the predator and whatever posed threat they may bring.  I'm one of those 'idiots' who goes out of my way to find predators - bears, cougars, ...even rattlesnakes.  I don't do this because I have some death wish (nor do I try to interact with the animals) but I really want to see them, their behavior, and study them.  Fact of the matter is that around 125-145 people a year are killed in deer-human accidents.  Rattlesnakes? 5.5 people on average.  Bears? Average 1 person a year, so admittedly this is a high year.  Cougar? Again, about 1 person a year.  Shark? 1.  How about the virtually eradicated wolf?  Try 0.1 people a year.  The odds are far higher for a bee sting to kill a person (53 average) than a predator.  Or, if you'd like, a horse (20 per year).  So why, then, the unrealistic fear that predators in your 'local habitat' are going to stalk and kill YOU.  It's statistically minuscule odds (Historylist, 2008).

The funny thing is that predator perception varies based on many different factors.  For example, people living in rural areas have a utilitarian view and tend to favor exploitation or subjugation.  People with advanced education lean toward naturalistic and conservationist mentalities.  Young people and women tend toward moralistic and humanistic values with a lot of affection for an individual animal or species (Reading, Keller, & Clark, 1993 & 1996).   In most cases the instilled fear of predators likely has less to due with human-predator interaction and more to due with human-predator conflict due to livestock loss.

The problem arises when humans have a "humans first and only" mentality that disregards the eventual outcome of so many species.  Did you know that in the next 50 years it's estimated that HALF of the world's current species will be extinct?  I'm a learned girl, so I am aware that we're in the midst of the world's sixth mass extinction, but what is disconcerting about this one is that it's primarily caused by one species: US.  (Of note, about 3% of the extinctions have/will be due to natural causes... so saying "we didn't do it all" isn't comforting when we cant take responsibility for about 97%.)

Asking "how did we get here" garners one of the simplest yet most complex answers in the history of our time.  We cared about us most.  Some people say "that's to be expected" but many others think that we're depriving our children - not even our children's children, mind you, but OUR children - to seeing far less of what we had the pleasure of. Isn't it time, then, that not only the left and right wings came together in understanding but that we figure out how to help on a global basis?  Rainforests, for example, cover a tiny percentage of land (1.8%) on earth... yet they are continually harvested.  Timber companies don't exercise the same responsible land use policies as other agrarians and clear cut old growth forests.  Our rivers and streams and ponds and lakes - ALL of them - have suffered the worst.  We all say 'sure, I care about the environment' but, like with so many other things, we merely SAY it.  We don't do anything actively about it.  I guess we expect the 'other guy' to stand up and do something.

To bring this blog full circle (and tie in to the Nashville Predators, as promised), here's a snapshot of how historic Inuit versus current Inuit mentality on polar bears - a predator often in the world's view due to climate change.  Of note for non-hockey fans, Jordin Tootoo is the first Inuit in the NHL and from Nunavut - he was also unavailable for comment.

  • Historically, Inuit saw Nanuk (polar bear) as a species garnering great respect.  If Nanuk was killed in a hunt, it provided clothing and food (the only thing discarded was the liver).  To show respect for the takoit (soul of the bear), the skin was hung in a place of honor for a few days.  Ancient Inuit legend shows a coexistence and respect for this greatest of bears.  Now, the Inuit officials don't even want the great Nanuk even added to Canada's list of protected species.  "Protect us, not the bear" (CBC News, April 2010). The logic? Threat to people, property destruction, and killing of their people.  Of note, a look at polar bears international discusses the very rare cases where humans are killed by polar bears.  I did a look on the net globally and found a case recently in Norway... but historical numbers were drastically low. Granted, maybe the Inuit people don't report these? Or, perhaps, it has more to do with hunting restrictions and less to do with Nanuk attacking people.  I really don't know but this is a great example of human perception on a species... the politics involved and the opposition and facts.  
In closing... I know that I'm working to practice what I preach - and I put my money and/or time where my mouth is in support.  Where do you stand?

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