I have always loved animals, even when I was afraid to get close to some of them. I read everything I could as a child about how animals live their lives and their behavior. It came as no surprise to me that most animals would prefer to avoid serious physical conflict. To do this they communicate with each other in a variety of ways. I admire people that understand that communication. Wild animals often give us a number of chances before they escalate into behavior that could injure us. The trouble is many people don't often understand what's being communicated.
On my last trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, the elk were in the middle of the rut, their annual breeding season. I was watching several bands spread across the valley meadow. One group was particularly close, and I had my camera on a tripod photographing the bull, a battle-scarred veteran in his prime. His cows had been feeding quietly and were now all lying down, resting. Suddenly they started standing up and moving away. I was confused at first, and then suddenly I saw a woman walking into the middle of the group. Stupid.
Elk are normally relatively peaceful and non-aggressive toward humans, but they are large, fast and can really mess you up. The cows rear on their hind legs and strike out with the front ones. The danger of bulls is visually evident, yet here was grandma walking into the middle of a breeding harem at the peak of the rut. The bull, who had been resting with his massive antlers against his back, saw the cows rise and moved away with up-tilted heads (a sign of tension) and quickly rose to his feet. The first communication. At that moment, I didn't think the woman would survive. The bull was about seventy-fifty yards from the woman, a distance he could cover in less than three seconds. He stood sideways and displayed his size and rack. The second communication. His body was taut with tension, his head was tilted and his gaze fixed. The woman was oblivious, but she had stopped moving into the group. The bull lowered his head and raked the grasses with his antlers. The third and final communication. I was willing to photograph the woman's death, but I wasn't about to get between her and that bull elk. I was too far away anyway. She lived.
Elephants, sharks, even bears usually get the offending human plenty of clues before they take you out. For a long time we didn't realize sharks were talking to us because we didn't know how to read their subtle posture changes. Elephants communicate with low frequency sounds so effectively, that they can surround a person before that person knows what is going on. Further they usually leave you a path to exit their presence, if you're smart enough to take it. If you don't, all bets are off. You can't hide from elephants. You can't stop elephants. Once the decision has been made and you are targeted, it's over. Speaking of being over...
I will admit to being a little afraid of bears. I haven't spent much time in their company and have a hard time reading them. Bears are totally of the moment. Their mood can pivot on a dime. I did see one event on television that has made a lasting impression.
Two hunters were hunting bear in Alaska when a big boar came walking between two hillocks. The bear looked too far away for a kill shot to me, but they took it anyway. They hit the bear, but he ambled off behind another hillock. As the hunters were getting ready to stalk the wounded boar, a sow with one or two cubs came into view walking the same path the boar had followed. She sensed something was wrong, stood on her hind legs and sniffed the air. Her head swiveled toward the hunters and before her front feet hit the ground again, the universe had decided that some soul in this tableau would have to die. The sow's eyes had locked on to the three men (the camera operator as well) and she started for them at a dead run. She was a fur-covered guided missile the size of a small car, a runaway train with no brakes, the hand of God delivering judgment. This was no mock charge. The hunters waved, shouted, and fired shots in the air, all to no avail. They didn't want to kill a mother with cubs. Her feet were a blur, but her approach took forever, she was so far away. It took three shots to stop her. No one was celebrating. The cubs bawling in the distance would likely not survive.
I often think I know just how that sow must have felt. Fed up. Fed up with human encroachment, with threats to her cubs and her kind, unwilling to let this last insult pass unanswered. The line had been crossed. There would be consequences. People are no different, really. Humans don't only experience miscommunication with animals, some don't have any better luck with members of their own species.
Why do some people find it so difficult to just shut up? I was watching television the other night and three consecutive dramas illustrated how people's lives are ruined, reputations trashed, good policies thwarted and children scarred, simply because people can't stop running their mouths. It started me thinking about how often I've witnessed the same thing throughout my life.
I've never understood how someone can do the equivalent of "poking the bear with a stick" without figuring out that, sooner or later, the bear is going to get tired of it and take their head off. I had an experience a long time ago that made me think about what I need to do to keep my head. My father always taught me to take any steps necessary to prevent losing control of my emotions in very difficult circumstances. He taught me to remove myself from the situation if that's the only thing I could do.
I had a really annoying woman standing in my office once. She was someone I had worked with in the past and she wanted me to make a decision I wasn't ready to make. She was in my face, but I was trying to remain clam. She kept insisting that I had to decide "right now." I explained that I didn't yet have all the information I needed to make the decision. It made no difference. She wouldn't stop talking (badgering, really). I finally asked her to leave my office. She refused. I repeated my request three times. She refused and kept talking. I was starting to lose it. I had to do something.
I grabbed her upper arms, picked her up so her feet were off the floor, walked with her to the hall outside my office, placed her lightly on the floor, walked back into my office and closed and locked the door. Her eyes were as big as saucers. Now although some people might criticize my actions, I know that, at the time, it was the quickest, least violent action I could have taken. Once I was in my office again, alone this time, I grew more and more angry. This was the kind of angry that heats your body, that clouds your vision, that rises like magma toward the surface threatening to explode. Fortunately, when that used to happen to me, my tendency was to isolate myself. I was angry for days. I vowed to never let someone else make me feel that way again or, to be more accurate, I vowed to never let myself respond in that way to anyone that was not an imminent threat to people I care about.
These are the big, yet simple lessons of life. Learn to read signals from others. Don't crowd elk or elephants. Don't present yourself as a threat to large carnivores. Respect creature's space and pay attention to their communication. Listen to people. Try hard to not be an asshole. Don't poke bears with sticks. Oh, and if a large man asks you nicely three times to leave his office, don't expect a fourth request.