Anyone who’s ever interacted with a wild animal knows how skittish they are compared to any domestic animal. I think of the squirrels on my university’s campus. In general, people leave the squirrel population alone there, so they tend not to be afraid of humans. Although there are still occasional predators, such as cats, dogs, the occasional hawk, etc, so they’re not totally fearless, but their lives seem far more carefree compared to the ones that live everywhere else in my part of the country.
Anyway, Lesley Evans Ogden has an interesting article in Aeon on the role of fear in nature, particularly the fear of predators. Ogden discusses the hostility of naturalists toward wolves in Yellowstone National Park in the early 20th century, and how their eradication led to ecological issues. Without the wolves, the deer and other creatures proliferated, and began to overconsume the vegetation. Introducing the wolves back several decades later led to a rebalanced ecology. Of course if you’re one of the deer, the change was not a good one.
But it turns out that having predators in an environment has major effects on the psychology of the animals in it. Prey who have to worry about predators eat less, have fewer offspring, and their offspring tend to be less robust. In other words, the fear of being eaten is an ongoing stress in their lives. In fact, the effects are similar to PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) in humans.
It seems like a stark reminder that real nature is far from the Disney version many of us grew up on. It also presents a more complicated picture for those who argue that animals shouldn’t be kept captive, but should be allowed to exist in their natural habitats, even with its dangers. This article makes me wonder what those animals would vote for, if they could have and understand the choice.