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.

Why 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.

  1. Louisa

    I find this a nice thought — but when we look at our own cattle production..use of furs for clothing..building roadways through areas of animal habitat causing fragmentation..it seems that in order to have this “loving relationship” many principles of human society must be changed. And in converse, how many beavers would stop building dams on rivers that humans enjoy, just as we would stop building roads over a deer’s favorite spot of woods? The simple fact that humans are creatures of morals and thought put us on an uneven keel with the rest of the evolved world. There are many types of symbiotic relationships, not all of them mutualistic. Who says that “love” is entirely natural to begin with? Does a seal meet a great white one day at dusk and suddenly realize they should try and love it rather than feel fear? This would be a silly decision seeing as the great white is hungry and not concerned with the psychological intent of the friendly seal. The seal would thus be eaten and his friendly genes would be sitting in the stomach of its predator.

    Fear is a basic instinct of the natural world — it protects an individual from an environment that could result in death. I have seen many a gorilla behave in a manner of almost domestication in movies, yet it would be a unwise idea for me to jump into the lap of a lowland gorilla. Same goes for the squirrel. Perhaps the author was a kind and thoughtful environmentalist, although what would you say to the groundskeeper of a university where squirrels are abundant and wreck havoc on his grounds? Again it would be unwise for the squirrel to curl up around the groundskeepers feet.

    There are too many social implications to a human-animal mutualistic relationship. An idea of world peace extending to outside species is such a farfetched idea when world peace involving our own species is no where near being accomplished. And the question must be posed: is a human-animal mutualist relationship even the best thing for the ecological community?

  2. Bobby B.

    I once had a young squirrel climb into my golf bag back when I played that silly game. Wild animals tend to lose some of the their wildness at the golf course. I guess it has something to do with the easy pickings provided by the retirees. Nonetheless, I took special care to scare the critter away without making any direct contact. No, I did not hit it with a club; although the thought crossed my mind.

    So ultimately, why shoo the beast? First, wild animals that smell like humans become outcasts in their own circles and are easier prey for predators. Second, taking a youngling home with the intent of releasing it as an adult is foolhardy, because the adult will generally be unable to survive without the continued care of the human. Since I did not desire a caged pet, I feel my actions were probably the most humane.

    BTW, when Christian literature refers to the Lamb lying down with the Lion, it is not speaking in terms of a literal pantheistic alliance. It is a metaphor for Christ.

  3. Justin Van Kleeck

    Louisa and Bobby, I really appreciate these very thoughtful responses to my posting. The points you raise are entirely valid–especially the fact that sometimes fear is *crucial* to an individual’s survival and that a one-to-one animal-human relationship would be problematic in our modern society.

    So yes, in nature there must be a balance. Because there are predators, then the prey must adapt to survive–and fear is part of that. And yes, sometimes animals “threaten” the things that we hold as ours (here I refer to the groundskeeper example).

    But when I look at these things, I still see a degree of superiority complex from the human standpoint. For example, people kill bugs in their houses because they say, “The bug came in *my* house, it is going to die.” But how does the bug know it is *your* house? And the bugs probably have more perpetual rights than humans do! Anyway, obviously I went to idealistic extremes. But I did so because I want to try to balance the typical, what I think is selfish human reaction to animals: whenever they get in our way or make our lives a bit difficult, then so often we simply turn to anger, violence, or what have you. We chase the squirrels away with clubs, we poison the environment to keep the pests away.

    I think we need to look at it from a new, less selfish, less predatory perspective. We do indeed have the gifts of emotions and reasons. Instead of that simply giving us superiority, though, I think it also allows us to bring morality to our relationship with other living beings and strive to work through fear, greed, and hatred/anger.

    (And Bobby, I know for sure about the Lion & Lamb RE Christ. But the religious metaphor also makes a beautiful metaphor for nature if you look at the VEHICLES for the metaphor, the animals themselves. ^_^)

  4. Bobby B.

    “And the bugs probably have more perpetual rights than humans do!”

    PETA and the evolutionists may feel this way. Creationists (Christian or otherwise) probably do not. In all current legal systems, the animals require the human element for representation. This is yet another example of man exercising dominion over the beasts, since you can only act in another entity’s interests if you have authority over said entity.

    Now, why do these critters typically get stomped by humans upon entrance into the domicile? Since animals, bugs and humans all reside within the same natural world, each has a right to defend its space as it sees fit. Flea carrying rodent vermin were responsible for episodes of the plague, and bugs in general carry and spread a whole host of diseases to which humans are susceptible. As such, humans are a bit protective of their spaces.

    Converse to the human killers example, animals defend their homes as well. Ants will attempt to kill an intruder (human or otherwise) by repeatedly stinging it when it steps upon a mound. Spiders bite when the web is disturbed. Bees swarm and sting when the hive is approached. Herds stampede in the field. Pack animals protect their lairs. Serpents and fish claim property rights wherever they are at a given moment and defend the space as they see fit. The examples are endless and in no case does the killer (insect, arachnid, animal, fish, etc.) consider the perpetual rights or intent of the invader. I left off fowl, but everyone knows that birds can be vicious.

    Would not stopping to consider the impact of my stomping a bug be another testament to my superiority over a creature that gives me no consideration?

  5. Justin Van Kleeck

    I think that trying to pass off stomping a bug in your house as “defending your space” is going a bit far. If the bug attacks you, then perhaps…but simply scuttling across the floor, up the wall, or under the sink?

    If you want to call rational thought “superiority,” that is fine and certainly justifiable. I see it as one particular, specific trait of humans, just as each animal species has its own particular traits. But what this rational trait (or gift, if you prefer) also gives us is the *ability* to choose not to kill, not to exploit, not to harm. Millenia of doing these things to animals may be a large part of why they *naturally* fear us. Rationality may or may not be superiority; superiority, if it is ours, is not a justification or excuse to exercise power over them and take/harm their lives…that is a choice, not a right. Period.

    So if the bug is just being a bug, not trying to poke out your eyes or infest you with the plague, then why not let it scuttle or catch it in a jar and take it outside?

  6. Bobby B.

    So, when a predator kills its prey, it is justified because it is incapable of rationalizing its actions? I can buy that, but why hold humans to higher standards? A scuttling bug may have no intent on spreading illness to my household, but since the potential is there it becomes a matter of its life versus my life. The ants see my inadvertent step onto the mound as a potential threat and respond with extreme prejudice. The bees view and respond to one’s mere proximity to the hive in the same manner. Why should I respond to a similar potential in a lesser manner?

    Since rational thought is exclusive to humans, why not extrapolate this ability to other human actions? Why not require deep consideration to activities like mowing the lawn, pruning the bushes or harvesting the crops? These actions also impact living things that lack the capacity for rational thought. What about drinking water since water contains literally thousands of micro-organisms that fail to think rationally? What about tapping an oil or gas well since these resources may have originated with the carcasses of once irrational, living creatures?

    Unless annihilation of the human species is your ultimate goal, one has to draw a line where rationality takes a back seat to prudency.

  7. Justin Van Kleeck

    Again, I think that it is disingenuous to compare a bug in your kitchen to a swarm of bees attacking you. The comparison does not hold up. The bottom line is that in any situation, be it an ant on your floor or a horde of ants on the rampage, you (as a human) have the choice to kill or not to kill. How you choose is your own affair. For myself, I believe that it is wrong to kill…even in self-defense. (That last, again, is my PERSONAL standpoint, not a recommendation.) The matter of animal predators killing prey is not the same as humans killing animals, since, as far as we know, animals are acting based upon survival instinct rather than rational or moral choice. If a lion had reason and morality, would it choose not to kill the zebra??? Who knows.

    When it comes to deep consideration, that is something I think is entirely worthwhile and necessary, not a human “burden.” The Buddha once was asked this same question, where do you draw the line if you say not to kill. Yes, we take life constantly, be it drinking water or walking down the street. I think you draw the line by trying to avoid conscious harm, intentional killing, and by doing what you can to lessen the harm you do (advertently or inadvertently). Albert Schweitzer used to pick up worms off the sidewalk; Buddhist monks will dig in the soil with utmost care, even for building foundations, and move worms they find in the ground to safety. Are these folks going overboard?

    You draw the line where your heart tells you, then you live with that choice. Just do it in full knowledge, with deep consideration, and recognize that your actions impact every other living being.

  8. Bobby B.

    Interesting and probably one of the better “pro-choice” epilogues I have ever read. Unfortunately, your statements sound much like PETA’s responses when asked about the group’s collective lack of concern for human life vis-à-vis abortion. However, on this occasion, let’s not restrict the term “pro-choice” to the abortion debate.

    There are many issues where the resolution involves restricting the choices afforded individuals and/or groups. The CAFE standards force automakers to manufacture a certain number of vehicles that achieve defined emissions and mileage standards. Why can’t the manufacturers choose to build whatever types of vehicles they desire? Localities and states are restricting the rights of private property owners to allow cigarette smoking on their premises. Shouldn’t each individual business owner have the right to choose whether or not he wants to offer a smoke-free environment to his customers? Canadian hate crime laws – similar laws are being discussed in the United States – forbid pastors from preaching about certain topics and tag parts of the Holy Bible as hate speech. Shouldn’t pastors enjoy the right to free speech like the rest of society, and how do you censor the Bible in a society that allows pornography? Recent federal energy legislation requires the phase out of incandescent lighting and forces consumers to accept mercury-laced CFL’s by 2012. Shouldn’t consumers have a right to choose whatever style of lighting they prefer? As you can imagine, the list is nearly endless.

    Most people would readily agree with your statement, “You draw the line where your heart tells you, then you live with that choice.” However, many see the environmental movement as nothing more than one of the many front organizations for the larger socialist movement; a movement that seeks to restrict individual freedoms under the guise of benefitting the whole society. Even though you as an individual may not have a political agenda, the green movement to which you are tied is very much entwined in politics because it knows that the change it seeks is only going to come when the force of government limits the “choices” available.

    Maybe it would be better to say that the decision to kill any living thing is relative to one’s perspective as opposed to a matter of personal choice. “Choice” has a tendency to cloud the issues.

  9. Justin Van Kleeck

    In a society, individuals often must give up complete personal freedom for the perceived benefit of the greater good. That is just part of the “social contract,” if you want to look at it that way. But when laws seem unjust, then individuals have the right to oppose them–think Thoreau and his “civil disobedience,” etc., etc. They have the right to speak out against those laws and to seek to change them if they wish. They have the choice to follow the laws or not, though they must also know that in doing so they are in fact breaking a law that has been put in place–whether or not it is truly just. Civil disobedience in this way (i.e., hopefully non-violent!) is just as much a part and determinant of human social existence as is the sacrifice of complete personal freedom in some cases.

    Now, of course the green movement is political; environmentalism is an -ism, plain and simple. And it does seek to limit personal freedoms in some ways, but again for the perceived greater good. If you disagree, then you have the right to oppose. I see little difference here, then, than with any other law or movement or aspect of a lawful society. Do you consider it a criticism to say environmentalism is political? I doubt anyone would be surprised at the relationship!

    Killing a living being is both a matter of choice and perspective. The perspective is what helps to determine the choice. Two people with different beliefs (such as you and I) may well see the bug from two different perspectives and choose to act accordingly, one exercising power through killing and the other exercising power through non-killing. Choice does not cloud the issue, since choice is always part of the issue…unless you are a complete determinist, of course. ^_^

  10. Kendra Holliday

    One law I find COMPLETELY unjust: a woman going topless in public is breaking the law and faces arrest. But men with much bigger boobs than mine can go topless – wtf? They have nipples and fatty tissue too!

    What if it was illegal to show a hairy chest? LAME.

  11. Bobby B.


    Regarding civil disobedience, I am planning to purchase a pallet full of 60 watt incandescent light bulbs with my next tax return. Maybe two. 😉

    “Now, of course the green movement is political; environmentalism is an -ism, plain and simple. And it does seek to limit personal freedoms in some ways, but again for the perceived greater good…Do you consider it a criticism to say environmentalism is political?”

    I personally don’t consider it a criticism to tie green to politics, but many green zealots attempt to discount their political ties and claim purity. Additionally, your second sentence above is brilliant and most revealing. You are the first to admit to me that environmentalism seeks to limit freedoms in any way, and your use of the word “perceived” is atypical of greenspeak. I would say that anthropogenic global warming is a “perceived” problem that lacks complete scientific understanding, whereas most greens view it as gospel and take it on faith. They even resort to labeling non-believers with terms like deniers, skeptics, corporate shills, etc. If I may use a label, up to this point most of the greens with whom I have had exchanges fall into the “determinist” category. Thanks for the openness.


    God, Gaia, Mother Nature, Evolution, or whichever diety you follow has made men and women different. I think the topless in public laws protect women from the unwanted advances (or worse) of men. Besides, that comment really doesn’t have much to do with the topic at hand.

  12. Justin Van Kleeck

    Well, Bobby, thank you for the compliment(s). I may be an environmentalist, I may be a vegan, I may be a nature boy…but that does not mean I am an extremist. Some folks are “compassionate conservatives,” and I guess I am a tolerant idealist. 🙂

  13. Bobby B.

    Being conservative, I loathe the term “compassionate conservatives” because unravels the meaning of conservatism. Strasburg will probably tell you that I am a social conservative and a fiscal libertarian. Many consider these diverging philosophies, but in my opinion it adheres to the Founder’s original intent better than most.

  14. Uncle B

    “Sustainable” for everything we do as humans is a given, but do you realize “renewable” and “perpetual” are synonymous? As technologies permit, off-griders will slowly grow in number, and soon form powerful lobbies, stronger than their votes, individually, and radical to the capitalistic corporate regiem now in total control! Once the “Super-insulations” hidden from common American folk by patent and Military controls are made public, an independent life-style supporting vegan notions and a life closer to nature and other animals, save for the innately vicious, predator ones, like bears, Lynx, martins, will be likely. Question is: Will “Factory Farming” yield up enough land for these gentle folk to survive on? Inda may have the answer, There is a sect of Vegans, that have deer as pets in that country, and their differences so respected, they are allowed to survive unharmed and interdependent, a part of the whole, much like modern-day Quebec, in Canada, a multi-cultural marvel, in spite of capitalists desire for common markets and the “Melting Pot” theories of unilingual sheeple, readily exploitable by their common characteristics! Can America learn to apply sustainability to individual cultures, and amalgamate them into the whole, or must we all drive V – 8 cars, burn gasoline instead of diesel, and use offensive amounts of deodorant, to fit the advertiser-propagandists uniform for exploitation?

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