Cantaloupes. I fear the stealthy, killer cantaloupes.
At a one-day session to discuss issues regarding Washington’s apex predators—wolves, grizzlies, black bears, and cougars—one of the warm-up introduction questions was “Have you ever feared for your life? Give a brief description.” The room had numerous biologists who spend their time in the woods, working in the territory of carnivores—animals that kill to eat. When my turn came around, I just volunteered that “I was a Naval Aviator and have 80 carrier-arrested landings at night in F-4 Phantoms.” For some reason, that was a satisfactory answer, probably better than mentioning cantaloupes. The most memorable story was from a biologist who was inching along a rock shelf when he met a bear coming the other way. Though neither spoke the other’s language, they quickly agreed that the bear had the right-of-way, and as the bio yielded by working his way back, the bear followed, encouraging the bio to keep moving. Once clear of the shelf, both went on their separate ways.
Fear regarding wildlife, or even night carrier traps, is interesting. Those who know wildlife respect the animals, but maintain “situational awareness,” awareness of their surroundings, awareness of likely encounter areas, and awareness of an animal’s body language, when sighted. The biologists know the probability of a dangerous encounter, though real, is low. Those who fear wildlife, generally have folk knowledge, if that.
Cougars—mountain lions—are my special interest. Sometimes called “The Cat of Cats,” cougars have an impressive combination of strength, agility, skill, and weapons. Yet, a healthy cat is unlikely to attack people in normal circumstances. In 120 years of record-keeping in the US and Canada, there have been about 200 attacks with cougar/human contact, 20 of them fatal. The attack rate of the past 25 years is higher than the previous 90, but still a minuscule risk, especially for a confident, aware person. Many biologists would tell us that growing human populations encroaching on wildlife habitat leads to increased interactions.
I have asked a handful of cougar experts, biologists who study them in the wild, why we fear cougars. Most relate it to our DNA, to the reptilian parts of our brain, or to our tail-bone. In other words, we fear because something once considered us as prey. The bios all agree, too, that fear is irrational regarding cougars. You see, cougars evolved independently of hominids; we do not fit their prey model. Leopards and tigers, conversely, did evolve with humans.
Statistically, there are many dangerous killers that we ignore, yet we fear the improbable killer. Family dogs kill more people in the US annually than cougars have killed in a century. Of course, we give dogs a better opportunity, all while saying “My Pookums would never hurt anyone.” The Center for Disease Control (CDC) tells us we’re wrong approximately 800,000 times a year about Pookums hurting someone, and our dogs send about 386,000 people a year to the Emergency Department. Still, we love our dogs, and rightfully so. Automobiles are another miscreant that we should fear more than wildlife, but we don’t.
Respect is the answer. Most of us respect our pets, and our automobiles, enough to learn about them, and to try not to drive them outside of their limits. The same holds true of night carrier landings: respect the danger, stay within the parameters. Fear leads to irrationality, and to bad decisions. The same applies when enjoying outdoor recreation. If you are going to be in areas with carnivores, elk, mountain goats or mountain sheep, take a canister of Bear Spray. It’s the best $50 you’ll ever spend on life insurance, and having it with you will remind you to maintain situational awareness. Your chances of needing Bear Spray, or using it, are small, but non-zero, so you will be secure knowing you are prepared.
Now, about those deadly cantaloupes. Cantaloupes from Colorado killed more people in 2011 than a century of human marauding by cougars and wolves in the US and Canada. Am I rational to shun them at the grocery store, to avoid the aisle that has those killers piled high? When I see a cantaloupe, should I call the Health Department, and insist they remove the cantaloupe, because of the danger it represents? Probably not. Danger from produce is small, though greater than zero. We take precautions. We can do the same with our wildlife. As we expand further into the wildlands, we will meet more wildlife, and we need to accept the minute, but non-zero risk of those encounters. No one can guarantee there won’t be another death from a cougar (1924 had the single death in WA), and no one can guarantee that cantaloupes won’t go on another killing spree. Don’t let the fear of the improbable destroy your enjoyment of cantaloupes, or of our wonderful outdoors.
Thoreau wrote “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” We owe it to our children and grandchildren to care for our wildlife and to leave them a legacy of wildness, a habitable world, and maybe even cantaloupes.