Updated: Nov 25
I have a confession to make. I sometimes spend an hour or so randomly watching online videos in which people do questionable- stupid things- involving wild animals. Beyond a good laugh, it saddens me that so many adventures end in tragedy when city slickers return to nature. Most of us live in cities which removes us from nature and the larger natural world around us. As such, pigeons, rats, and raccoons are the extent of our contact with wildlife. Aside from our heavily manicured yards and city parks, we don't get to see many wild animals in their natural environment.
I have mixed feelings about zoos, but they do lots of good and the necessity seems obvious. Suburban sprawl and habitat destruction are often cited as the cause of many encounters in which the animals are either relocated or euthanized after repeated contact with humans. Coming home to find a black bear lounging on the deck or an alligator in the pool is cute, but it gets old after the first time. I firmly believe that most wild animals want nothing to do with us. They’re afraid of us as nature intended and it’s only when we go off script that bad things happen.
In cases where animals are harassed due to simple stupidity and cruelty, I tend to root for the animal but, there’s no reason to be afraid of other living things and to avoid the great outdoors entirely. We need nature, not the other way around. Outlined below are my ruminations on how to enjoy a long walk in the woods.
The Wild Life
Sure, those big ears, bright eyes and soft fur practically invite you to cuddle with everything from a squirrel to a bison. Squirrels can be as annoying as they are cute and funny. There’s a dark side to these rodents, though, and if you manage to catch one, you’re likely to be rewarded with a nasty scratch or a painful bite. Bison are the largest mammals in North America and fear nothing short of an adult grizzly or a pack of wolves. You risk a painful death by being trampled or gored when getting too close to these behemoths for a quick touch or a selfie. Our desire to hug, touch or kiss non-domesticated animals is dangerously misguided and places us and the animal at risk. Being held- restrained- is frightening to wild animals and they respond in the only ways they know how. They bite, kick, and scratch to escape from perceived danger. The bottom line: check your excitement, keep your hands to yourself and keep your distance.
Millions of years of evolution have equipped wild animals with finely tuned senses and specialized abilities to survive in places we can’t. Unless the animal is rabid, most run from us at first sight, sound, or whiff. Think about it, if you’re a doe and something that smells so strongly and strangely, stomping about on two legs comes noisily into your home, it often means trouble. You do what your instincts tell you to do: run! Natural selection is more than a theory. The weak don’t get to pass on their genes and avoiding danger is an integral part of staying alive. Sure, startling your sleeping pet is cute. However, on the off chance that you manage to catch a black bear unaware, the outcome could be deadly as the animal has seconds to decide to run or defend itself. Park rangers and animal behavior experts advise making noise to avoid this scenario.
Animals don’t always immediately run; however, this isn’t an invitation to do something stupid or potentially dangerous. If the animal approaches you, avoid direct eye contact which can be interpreted as aggression. Stand up straight and stretch out your arms to look large and formidable. Make a lot of noise and back away slowly. Most, if not all animals easily run faster than the fastest human, so this is absolutely your last resort. They’re also more adept at climbing and swimming, too. Your best defense is to alert them to your presence by being noisy as you hike.
Please sir, May I have More?
Aside from seeking a mate and protecting its young, there’s no other activity that occupies more of an animal’s time than hunting and foraging. Like people, wild animals can be conditioned behaviorally and feeding wildlife is surely the quickest and most effective way of doing so. Why spend so much time hunting and foraging as nature intended when you can dumpster dive or take food from foolish, fickle humans? This seemingly harmless act of kindness and misplaced sympathy often results in tragedy once the cuteness of the begging wears off. The animals are either relocated or euthanized as they’re unable to change their behavior as quickly as we can. Consider the issues with your beloved pet's daily begging whenever you sit down for a meal. Now, imagine a 400-hundred-pound, male black bear or an adult coyote or a gaze of raccoons demanding their regular handout. Yeah, things can go south very fast. Don’t do it.
Savoring versus Guzzling
What does a good hike, a good cigar and a good whiskey all have in common? They're best enjoyed slowly! If your goal is to see wild animals in their natural habitat, that's not going to happen sprinting through the excursion. Take your time and engage all five of your senses. If you're quiet and still, you can pick out the distinct sounds of the life around you. While you may not see a bear or deer, the experience is nonetheless calming and exhilarating. Conversely, you may have no interest in seeing wildlife and that's fine, too.
This being a prepping blog, I’d be remiss if I didn’t send you off into the great outdoors with a few recommendations for a safe and enjoyable adventure. This guidance is for short hikes of a few hours. The guidance for multi-night camping in state parks and remote areas would be far more extensive.
o A fully charged cellphone. Turn off Wi-Fi, to avoid draining the battery.
o Ditch the headphones. Nature provides the best soundtrack on earth!
o Always let others know where you’re going and when to expect you back.
o Stick to the route you say you’re taking. This aids in rescue efforts, if necessary.
o Dress for the occasion and have a change of clothes (no cotton) in your pack.
o Carry your trash out with you!
o Keep all dogs on a short leash. They chase wildlife and are at risk from other predators.
o Arm yourself, as appropriate. Consider insect repellant, bear spray, a good knife.
o A good walking stick and camera are must-haves.
o Backpack staples: small First Aid kit, compass, space blanket, whistle, signal mirror.
o Additional backpack staples: paracord, matches/lighter, bandana.
o An adequate amount of water and simple, high-energy snacks.
Smell the air and marvel at a level of beauty that will forever surpass anything man can create. Enjoy Mother Nature’s gift to us, just be smart about it.