Published on June 21st, 2008 | by Justin Van Kleeck15
Animals, Humans, and the Nature (or Nurture) of Fear
With my feet propped up, an open book in my lap, and the morning sun baking me in my skin like a potato, I certainly was not an intimidating presence. A young squirrel certainly did not find me so, at least, as it came scurrying up to where I sat. It would slink forward a few feet, stop and extend its nose to sniff my way, slink forward a bit more, stop and sit up on its haunches to get a better view, before finally it circled around my feet and looked inquisitively up at me repeatedly. I seriously suspected it would jump up in my lap (and kind of hoped it would!), perhaps to check out what I was reading and discuss literature with me, maybe ask for a cup of tea and something to nibble on.
But no, it finally scuttled away again, returning once more a bit later with its friend/sibling for another reconnoitering mission. It is still hanging around, eating fallen birdseed and doing various other mischievous things.
While this unusually friendly squirrel was clearly wary as it investigated the baking human, I would not say that it showed a whole lot of fear…even if it did not jump up in my lap and surely would not have let me pick it up.
Later, in a bit of synchronicity, my father told me on the phone about how friends of his had saved a baby raccoon from a tree that was being cut down. It was no more than the size of a mouse when they originally rescued it, and they were raising it as a pet. So now it was sort of like your typical rambunctious kitten or puppy, playing with toys and perfectly content interacting with its owners/rescuers. In saving the baby raccoon’s life, then, these kind people had also domesticated it (along with practicing a bit of “adoptive stewardship”), turning it from wildlife to family pet–with all the familiar behaviors.
Incidents like these where wildlife do not flee from the first sign (sight, smell, or sound) of humans always make me wonder about the nature of animals’ fear of us. I wonder if it is something instinctual, a natural reaction to us and relationship with us, something perhaps developed for survival through the ages. Maybe the ancestors of modern wildlife had bad experiences with our ancestors, who were likely looking for anything to serve as food and clothing and what have you. Maybe those animals saw one too many of their companions captured and turned into workers and/or pets, and so they learned to distrust and avoid us in order to live free.
But whenever wildlife show an opposite reaction, be it simple tolerance or get-up-close curiosity, it seems instead that fear of humans is learned by each generation from its parents and elders. If a young squirrel and a baby raccoon, both not yet well versed in fearing humans, can actually come closer to us rather than running away in terror, then fear becomes less clearly instinctual. At these times, fear seems to be a product of nurture, not of nature.
Is the fear that wildlife have for humans the result of genetics or environment? Or is it a combination of the two?
Whatever the truth of the situation–nature or nurture or both–I personally find amusement and beauty in those times when the gulf between humans and animals shrinks. I also find great hope.
These human-animal interactions suggest the possibility that one day we can exist in a mutually trusting, loving relationship. They give me a glimmer of hope that all the animals, not just the ones we domesticate, will see us as friends rather than enemies or suspicious characters. They make me wish for a time when animals and humans will live together in a vibrant community.
At the same time, when the gulf of fear shrinks, it makes me hope that humans will stop giving animals reasons to fear us, and that humans will stop fearing animals. I also hope then that humans will reach out to animals in order to build the vibrant community, and that humans will do everything necessary to protect the living community forever.
Personally, then, I ultimately do believe that fear can be overcome by love and kindness. I believe that, for animals and for humans alike, fear is not “natural”…but love is.
Image credit: Clifford Berryman (1902) via Wikimedia Commons.