How often have you felt real fear?
I’m not talking the bumblebee buzz of anxiety that comes in the hours before stepping up to a microphone, nor the sweaty-palmed anticipation you feel after being called to the boss’s office or while preparing for a big date.
I mean the sudden, unexpected jolt of adrenalin that courses through your body when you realize your safety, or that of a loved one is at risk.
It happened to me once on a trail. I was alone — in the bush outside of town, but within a kilometre of houses and people. I rounded a corner below a rail overpass and stopped short.
In front of me, across the trail was a large, tan, quivering mound. Mental gears and levers clicked as my brain struggled to process. It was a deer, on its side, head and legs pointed away, partially obscured from my view. The heaving was the ragged wheeze of its breath.
More processing. And then the fear, a dagger that exploded from my core into my palms and heels. The animal was injured. Had it been attacked? Bear? Cougar?
OMFG, was I standing between an alpha predator and its meal?
I think about that moment of terror when I read the latest in what seems to be a constant stream of stories about Vancover Island animal encounters gone bad.
These stories inevitably are followed by a number of angry posts about how human incursion into the wilderness is putting our beautiful wild creatures at risk.
And while I can’t say I disagree, I also think these posts often come with a false urban premise attached that we somehow can and should live apart from the natural world.
The reality is, we don’t. And that means that sometimes we have to take steps to protect ourselves.
Remember the two-year-old girl attacked just steps from her Tahsis back door in 2015? How about the eight-year-old in 2012 near Sproat Lake? The 18-month-old pounced on without warning a year earlier near Kennedy Lake? Consider their surgeries and their recurring nightmares.
These weren’t people thoughtlessly invading wilderness preserves, tossing bones and leftover spaghetti along the trail while calling “here, wolfie, come here boy!” They were just Vancouver Islanders, living life on Vancouver Island.
It’s a lot easier to romanticize a cougar, bear, or wolf from the safety of a coffee shop than it is while walking your dog along a beach, or hearing a predator has been spotted near your kid’s school. And don’t kid yourself, these animals are predators.
I still don’t know why that deer was prone across the trail. The instant the fear arrived, the fight or flight instinct kicked in. I turned, immediately, and walked quickly back in the direction from where I came.
From my desk, a decade later, I know I could have been turning my back on a sick animal needing help, or offering that same back to a big cat as another meal. I didn’t think about it. I just did it.
When your body thinks it is in danger it acts. It acts because of a deep-rooted, necessary and ultimately useful instinct toward self-preservation.
And that cannot be ignored. Like the instinct of a bear to forage, a cougar to hunt, or a deer to charge at a threat to its young, it is natural.
I get sad when I read about a conservation officer putting down a cougar or a wolf. I get mad when I read about idiots leaving out their garbage and engaging in other behaviour that encourages human/predator interaction.
I think killing is a last resort and steps need to be taken to discourage the idiot factor.
But let’s not kid ourselves: the outskirts of Tofino and Ucluelet and the school fields of the north Island are not the remote fjords of the Great Bear Rainforest; they are habitat for people as well as animals.
And people need to be protected too.
» John McKinley writes for www.vifreedaily.com. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org