Animals and People – A Story of Misplaced Love and Fear,

A few days ago two cyclists riding through the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in Washington were attacked by a cougar. One of the men was killed and dragged off to the mountain lion’s den. The other person is recovering from wounds.

Is this rare? Yes it is. Nevertheless, it reminds me that a “wild animal” is just what the title implies - wild and potentially dangerous.

Fear and fascination are two of the opposite ways to describe our severely mixed and unrealistic reactions to animals.

Mammals seem largely to be in the group that many people like and are fascinated by especially if they are “babies.” Babies are cute, snuggly, cuddly and huggable. Even the Mommies and Daddies of wildlife babies are often thought of as loveable.

Recently a TV anchor woman, after watching a tranquilized black bear fall out of a tree into a rescue net, gushed “isn’t he just adorable!?” Interesting maybe, but adorable? Come on. A bear is only tolerable when it’s not chasing you up a tree, slashing you or ripping out the interior of your car to get at food.

To most of us, fuzzy, furry and even feathered creatures are “nice” animals. City folks, and that means most of us nowadays, seem most likely to be afflicted with Disneyitis in the apparent belief that most animals have sweet dispositions and just want to be your friend. We have a Bambi, Beauty and Bounteous Love attitude.

And while I’m on this kick, I’ll say straight out that I’m not sure “petting zoos” are a great idea. What does petting or cuddling a lamb or a chick really accomplish? Is it a bonding ritual that helps us bridge the gap between us and them? Why? We eat lamb chops and fry chickens. Should this farm familiarity carry over to dangerous wildlife? “Baby” lions and tigers and bears certainly have appeal too, but their parents are a whole other thing.

Furry and fuzzy little critters may be loveable but few people think scaly, “slimy” things that slither are loveable. The cry “it’s a snake!” can stand the short hair up on most folks’ necks. The mega over-reaction most people have toward reptiles and amphibians, including frogs and toads is sad. Interestingly, there are some folks on the other hand who can’t resist touching or picking them up. One of my former students was bitten when he picked up a pygmy rattlesnake and was rewarded with extreme pain and a trip to the hospital when his hand swelled up and turned purple.

Don’t even get me started about spiders. Creepy, crawly, eight-legged horrors and the larger they are, the scarier. Interesting to watch when they’re not moving, but let it scurry toward you and it’s “Katy, bar the door”!

Our biggest problem is that we don’t spend enough time outdoors and it has become an unfamiliar place. When I was a kid we collected insects and spiders, raced doddle bugs, scooped up lightning bugs and put them in jars, kept snakes in cages, caught frogs and toads. Most of our waking hours were spent outdoors. No more. Now most of us spend 95% of our time indoors.

If you want your kids to grow up with more balanced attitudes toward the world we live in, get them outside. Go to parks, walk through the woods, hike mountain trails, sit on the porch while the sun sets, the stars rise and the hypnotic sound of crickets and cicadas lulls you. These activities are a whole lot safer than the thrills our youth are exposed to with their unsupervised friends in town and certainly better for them than nonstop computer and smart phone games and texting. Make it a point to learn more about the fields and forests with your children. They’re going to be responsible for a large part of our world very soon.

Dr. Risk is a professor emeritus in the College of Forestry and Agriculture at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Content © Paul H. Risk, Ph.D. All rights reserved, except where otherwise noted. Click to send questions, comments, or request permission for use.