Saturday, October 2, 2010

Humans Have No Sense of Self-Preservation

I have a cold, which means I’ve spent the last two days with this expression:

[a female howler monkey who does not,
to my knowledge, have a cold]

I’ve also been feeling less than energetic. But since I felt a bit better late this afternoon, and since the day was so beautiful, I thought I’d walk over to one of the benches in the zoo and sit in the sun, healing myself with a nice dose of late-day vitamin D. And I brought my camera with me because, well, I was going to the zoo.

As it turned out, I had to walk around for a while to find a nice patch of sun in an area that wasn’t too crowded, and on my way I had various adventures, including nearly losing my notebook forever to the area surrounding the peccary enclosure. (Luckily, the little girl who accidentally knocked my notebook over the railing—while exclaiming, “Mommy, I see a pig!”—didn’t knock it into the enclosure itself, so I was able to retrieve it, only slightly damp from having fallen into the little man-made pond.)

The sun didn’t stay in one position for long, however, so after a brief basking and rather more time spent taking peccary pictures, I headed towards the back exit. But the “Great Cats” exhibit is on the way out, and I thought I’d just stop by. There, both tigers were pacing restlessly with a lean and hungry look.

Which brings me to the title of today’s post. The statement should come as no surprise, really, given our tendency to pollute and degrade the planet we depend on, given the fact that we design weapons of mass destruction and engage in warfare. None of this smacks of any great ability to maintain our species.

—But all of that relates to groups of people, and, as any biologist will tell you, natural selection acts on individuals, not on groups. That is to say, just because you blow up a bunch of members of your species or do any number of things that may be bad for Humans as a Whole, unless they’re also bad for you, engaging in those behaviors won’t necessarily result in your genes being removed from the gene pool and the next generation.

All well and good, but I am more and more convinced that, on average, humans as individuals also have little or no sense of self-preservation. I say this after having spent a great deal of time on numerous occasions photographing pacing tigers. As was quite clear from the photos in my earlier post, tigers are scary when they pace. And yet visitors to the zoo, by and large, display no fear.

I don’t mean that they’re just engaging in bravado, trying to be flippant in the face of something terrifying. No, I mean they are not afraid. There were a couple of exceptions today: a child who, while exiting the Great Cats area, told his parents, “I’m scared of the lions,” and a kid watching the tiger who asked his mother in alarm, “Why would they have it out in the open like that?” But otherwise, people had no qualms about roaring at the tigers, meowing at the tigers, whistling at the tigers, or making—well, I guess I’d have to call them cat-calls, all extremely provoking.

[wouldn't you love to be
the tiger's keeper?]

Yes, I do understand that the tigers are in enclosures that are designed to prevent their escape, and that it is highly unlikely that anybody watching them will be mauled to death. That’s not the point. There are certain images and sounds that humans appear to be born fearing; I haven’t looked into the research on this, but I think snakes may be in there, and certain color patterns. You would think giant felines with teeth the length of your hand would be one of those built-in fear producers, and I’d imagine that, at one point, they were. But we seem to be losing that innate terror, and we don’t seem to be supplementing it with a learned fear—and I don’t think that bodes well for us as a species. Regardless of whether or not any of us are eaten by tigers, it suggests we might be killed by stupidity.

{A note: I do write all text and take all pictures. Please do not reproduce either without my permission.}


Kathleen Cunningham said...

When I visit the Detroit Zoo, I can never get over my fear of the polar bears roaming their space seemingly looking for something to eat! I know there are barriers, but those barriers never look adequate to me & my fear alarms can't be quelled.
My experience of parents & children visitors at tourist attractions is that they seem to think they are always at Disney World with some sort of conferred protection. Children leaning over a 500 foot cliff. well,it must be safe because it is tourist attraction.
Great photos & observations, Olivia.

Anca said...

At least there were two child persons in possession of their inbred fear of big cats. That's. . . what, proportionately? After all, how many people are mauled every time Republicans are elected, and they go and vote them in again? Not that I'm comparing these magnificent and captive beasts to the unattractive specimens at large.

Noel said...

Sometimes I think that we have capitalized on everything to the point that what's majestic and powerful and mysterious becomes cheap carnival entertainment. We have everything when we want it and fitting to our standards of comfort. If we want to see a tiger, we don't have to travel around the world and hike through the forest; we can pop on the tube, kick up our feet, and watch animal planet with a tv dinner. I think sometimes it takes the awe out of life. And if there's no awe, what's the point?

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