Think all dogs are out to bite you, all cats will scratch you and all other animals in your city are dangerous in some way too?
If the Freakonomics guys ever did a statistical study on this, they would probably find two things.
- The people who’re most scared of getting bitten if they approach animals most probably will get bitten. Most people who are that scared of animals are that way either because of childhood conditioning or a childhood memory of an attack. All the animals they share their world with are either caged in at the zoo, or are their friends’ puppies. So they missed out on the essential do’s and don’ts that other kids naturally picked up. They don’t know how to shut up and listen, watch, feel. They translate body language and expressions from a human perspective. They have preconceived notions and fears that warp their perception. But you know what? By staying away from what they don’t know, they’ll probably be safer than those of us who’ve had limited exposure (think domesticated pets, petting zoos). Which brings me to my second point.
- More people are hurt by pets than wild animals. Of course, we take more liberties with our pets than with wild animals.
Here are some myths I’ve heard from people with limited experience with animals, and disagree with.
Fact: Animals LOOK cute. It’s the fur, it reminds us of teddy bears. Unless they’re pets with no worries of shelter, safety and food, they don’t have time to be cute. They need to find food or starve, they need to fend off peers and hide from multiple predators constantly. It’s stressful. Some stray/wild animals may learn that acting cute will get them food and safety, but most of them are happy co-existing with you in peace. Even if you become friends, you can’t cuddle up to them like your pets.
Fact: Understanding our language and responding to us aren’t the essential qualities of intelligence. No animal is dumb. They learn what they need—they are intelligent enough to make their lives, raise a family and survive. If they ease up just once, they may end up as a predator’s dinner. Trust me, your friend’s ‘intelligent’ retriever is relatively much dumber than the ‘dumbest’ earthworm.
Myth: Animals will warn before attacking.
Fact: They do, but not the way you expect them to. Not all animals growl or wave their tails. Females and mothers are difficult to read. Some go very still when they’re threatened. Some become very silent. So listen, watch, feel. Their eyes and body language are screaming, but silently.
I’m not an expert, but I’ve been around animals since I was a kid. I’ve only had a pet dog for a few years, the rest of my experience has been with stray dogs and cats, wild urban animals like birds, cows, ponies and very recently, squirrels and even a mama raccoon. I’m that girl whose parents didn’t monitor for a minute at a zoo, and then found her with her arm inside a leopard cage, stroking its tail. That little girl got lucky that leopard just watched her lazily, but I haven’t been lucky all the time. I’ve got bitten twice by stray dogs and a few more times by pets. But I keep going back, for they bring me peace and make me happy. A few accidents don’t stop you from driving, and a few falls don’t stop you from cycling, do they? Besides, the human world gets boring after a certain point.
Like many people, I’ve learned a language and etiquette that spans across many species—mostly urban, but maybe more. Here are some things I follow without thinking. Remember, my knowledge is limited to my mostly urban experience, so don’t try this with a wild bear!
- Think what you want to tell the animal. Feel it. The animal will catch your vibes from your body language. You can talk if you want. Your language doesn’t matter, your tone does. Be gentle, be soothing.
- Never approach an animal. You’ll threaten it and it will either flee or attack. Imagine a giant bear found you cute and came to you, whispering calming words. Trouble is, all you see is a 10-foot bear with sharp claws growling at you. It’s the same for that little furry fella out there when you approach him. Make yourself visible at a healthy distance and stay, open your palm and hold it out. Let the animal choose whether he wants to approach you, and let him come closer.
- Stay still, and move slowly.
- If you’ve encroached on their territory or their children, back away slowly, your eyes on the parents but not making eye contact. Size matters, you can use it to your advantage. But if an animal is not tiny, viciousness matters (think raccoons).
- If you’re trying for a friendship, establish Alpha with your furry friend early on. A little fear is always a good thing.
Most importantly, share the world and show some compassion. A bowl of water in the summer and some food in the winter can go a longer way than adopting all stray animals. You don’t have to be an animal lover to help a few hungry animals out. It’s good karma. Plus, a bird feeder or a food bowl will give you hours of entertainment, and you’ll suddenly start noticing birds and critters everywhere.
Yes, they’re all around you, even in this busy city. Chirping, tweeting, scampering. We’re all ultimately living in a jungle.