Tuesday, March 19, 2013

"Ma'am,... Please put the cub down and slowly back away"

I talk animals a lot.  Seriously.  I'm told to "shut it" more often than not (thankfully with a glare and seldom with the actual words).  So, one day I'm talking animals with a bud when somehow the conversation turn to a topic called "habituation". If you're not familiar with the word, no worries, I'll help.

Habituation - in the wildlife world - simply means the animal is exposed to a certain stimulus (like, humans, for example) and therefore stop responding in the natural manner.  You've probably experienced a form of habituation if you've ever been to a zoo.... specifically the primate buildings. They're not known for being a harmonious blend of odoriferous bouquets.  You walk in and your nose balks, begging you to cover and leave; but ironically, after a few mere minutes, you don't even realize there's a stench.  The same principle is in use: if animals are exposed to humans, they lose their natural tendency to react in a specific manner.  
Let's consider that...

Jane Goodall... you've heard of her, right?  Everything she did surrounded habituating chimpanzees to her presence.  In her study, she was relying on habituation to provide a rare glimpse to see chimpanzees interacting in their normal fashion in the wild. So... this is where the ethics of the habituation come in.  See, I'm a fence rider to some degree on this one.  I wouldn't walk up to Ms. Goodall and berate her for habituating chimpanzees to humans because I'd likely be doing what most people do: simply be enamored by tales from the jungle. I'm also pretty fond of my bud Dave who is pretty accomplished at interacting with wildlife in the wild (albeit I'll defend him since he also worked to teach captive tiger cubs how to be wild again).  Then there's me... we "inherited" a deer named Filene.  But even with Filene, I try not to break the rules (I don't have a bowl outside for her filled with treats...).  Just for the record, if you feed birds, different story.  ...even though that goes awry (like when the 50+ flock devastates my feeders).

But again: Fence Rider.  And the fence that I'm perched precariously on isn't a very wide one.  For the most part, and in most circumstances, I completely disagree with habituation of animals.  There'd better be some solid science on the line and not simply a photo op or a ratings ploy.  There's a pretty solid logical reason for my generally stubborn stance on this one:

If you take away an animals natural fear of people you've taken away the very best protection that animal has against people.  For lots of reasons.  Let's look at a few examples.  For these, I'm a bear (yes... I am... don't question it).  I'm naturally afraid of people.  They have funny smells and my instinct says that even if they are virtually hairless, clawless, and toothless predators, they are still the most efficient and deadly predators ever.  That's my instinct jumping all through me. BUT:
ABR Cub in Tree
Photo from App Bear Rescue

  • "This one human keeps hanging out by me.  First I started to hurry away, but... geez, it won't bugger OFF!  ...and it's berry season and its right there at my berries.  After awhile, I give up and ignore it, because I'm hungry and its not bugging me... it's just... there!"

    So in that example, what happens the next time the human isn't the harmless person but someone hunting.

    ...or worse, its a soccer mom taking a nature walk with her kids and here's this bear with no fear of humans.  
  • "This other human keeps putting out things that I swear its doing for me. It smells so good!  I can't help myself... I mean, I'm a bear... and that's a flawlessly made NummyBear Stew if I ever smelled one!  I'm trying to resist cuz it's right there by its porch but wow.  Did I mention it's the best I've smelled?  Who am I kidding.  I can't resist that.  Besides, it set that out for me cuz that's way to good'a NummyBear Stew for it to not be for me, so I'm going to go sample the goods!"

    So in that example, the bear learns that nomnom goodness can be attained from humans.  This porch, that porch, campgrounds, garbage cans, tents, cars.... after the lesson is learned, it's a slipper slope because even if it's in a nontraditional sense, the human just became the food source. Like the saying goes: "Fed bear is a dead bear."  The human's fault.  
Regardless how cheezy my examples are, people really need to understand this lesson not only for the wild creatures in our world, but also for those wild animals that we are responsible for (for whatever reason) with the intent to release them back into the wild.  Wild animals have to retain that natural instinct and that fear of people.  It's what helps keep them safe.  It's what helps keep us safe as well.  We can't turn wildlife rehab animals into mascots.  If we hug and cuddle and kiss the cute little guys that we're rehab'ing... what happens after we release them?  Do you think they're going to see humans as a cruel conflict-fueled potentials?  Well, likely not since they got "kissy face" and bottle feeding from them for so long.  

I'd love to take credit for this rant... but honestly I can't.  I mean, do I agree? Sure.  Is it something important?  Yup.  But I am afraid that I suffer from a double-X chromosomal disorder that prompts me to start cooing and making unintelligible words every time I'm near certain species.  I'd like to say it's not my fault, but personal accountability kicks in and I realize that the best thing I can do to help that "ootsie-wootsie wittle beh-bay" is to keep it safe by not making it think humans are friends.  Face it folks, some of us are advocates but that doesn't mean humans all are... you know it and I do... so act, think, feed, and coo responsibly.  It's for their safety.

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