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Ancient Water

IMG_7754Last week, A and I took a grueling hike to see the surreal Harding Ice field in Alaska, whose acres and acres of ice date back to the ice age.

On the way down, we filled our water bottles from a melt water stream. Fresh and chilled by nature, true mineral water.

I exclaimed, “This is ancient water we’re drinking!”

But A simply said, “All water is ancient.”

Something to think about.

Close encounter with a red fox

Ever had fantasies of being the hero in a real life emergency? Wait till you come face to face with a fox, and you realize you’re the first to make a run for it.

A few days ago, my Knight in Shining Shorts, Adi and I were vacationing in the San Juan Islands, WA, enjoying the solitude, the nature and ‘so few humans’. On the last day, we decided to go to the lighthouse near American camp, where you could sight baby seals and sometimes, whales. The rocks were steep but we managed to climb down to the gray, rocky beach 20 ft below. We caught a glimpse of a sea otter running across, and then, a fox ran across, carrying food in its mouth. His beautiful fluffy red coat made him look quite big, the size of a German Shepherd.

Fox ahead!

Fox ahead!

We trekked to a nice view point and sat down, only to see that the fox was behind some logs, just visible in the distance (picture is on max zoom). He alternated between peeking up at us and chomping his food. “So cute!”, “He’s so cuddly!”, “What will he say?” we joked and left him alone to eat his food in peace.

He then finished his food and became very curious.

Hello, Strangers!

Hello, Strangers!

He walked across the logs and made his way closer to us. We ignored him until at about 40 ft away, we decided to stand up and look bigger, while sending him “We’re not here to harm you” vibes. He looked straight at us, not threatening, not docile, just looking intently, inching his way toward us. We wondered if people had been feeding wildlife. Was he just curious, or hungry?

Let me take a closer look

Let me take a closer look

What are you doing in my land?

What are you doing in my land?

All the same, we decided this was enough, and clapped. Startled, he scampered up the slope. We started walking back the way we came, but he came back down the slope overlooking our path, at a good vantage point.

Startled

Startled

Vantage point

Vantage point

We were nervous to cross when the fox was right up there. We decided to wait it out, maybe he left his food back there, since he kept looking back nervously to some logs near our entry point. But he patiently, confidently, inched closer, looking us straight in the eyes. What does the fox say? Nothing. He just stares, not snarling, not moving, and slowly breaks you with his cool confidence. It was a game of nerves, and he was slowly winning. We were in his territory, and he was blocking our only way out. When he stood on the path before us about 15 ft away, I buckled (and messed up a potentially uber-cool picture). This was the final stand-off. After this he would be establishing alpha, and despite our experience with urban wildlife and wild herbivores, we didn’t know anything about foxes except that they can be ferocious if they are protecting their kits. He (She?) now fed on my scared vibes and was now almost ready to come closer and…what? I frantically went through my memories of all my dog bites, some violent, some not, but couldn’t come up with a game plan in case she attacked. We were bigger and much more heavier, but she was wilder, and had sharp teeth and claws. We could easily push her away but she could still inflict serious damage if she wanted to.

15 ft away and in our way, and my messed up picture

15 ft away and in our way, and my messed up picture

The rest happened very fast. Adi spotted a rather steep but climbable gravelly slope and asked me to make a run for it, he’d hold down fort. I made a dash for it, and saw the fox dash too. Now panicking that the fox was chasing us, I sprinted up that 75-degree slope in 5 seconds flat! Forget a hero, fear made a mountain goat out of me!

Turns out panic had made me delirious. Adi saw the fox darting backward and toward something it was protecting, it never chased us. Still, we continued to jog, huffing and puffing through the knee-deep grass, until we saw some hikers. I’ve never been happier to see humans! We immediately composed ourselves, acted all cool, talked about the weather, and ‘calmly’ warned them, off-hand, about a fox that was ‘quite bold’ and to skip the beach, and walked on till we found the road. I’ve never been happier to see a tar road. Civilization! I felt like a sailor spotting land after years of being lost at sea.

Looking back, it was a thrilling and brag-worthy experience with a rather comical end, but we know that it could have easily gone either way. We read later that foxes do have their kits around this time, so if that fox was a mom, there was no way she’d have let us cross so close to her den. Maybe we over reacted, many tourists have encountered begging foxes on Cattle Point Road or maybe she was just protecting her food. But I am certain this one wasn’t begging for food or show us tricks.

It is humbling to realize your place in the world. Looking into a hunter’s eyes make you understand the meaning of ‘survival of the fittest’. And you realize how maddeningly defenseless you are against the wild. You develop a different kind of respect for nature.

From now on, we are carrying our trekking poles and a whistle on our hikes. We are also going to leave our whereabouts with a friend so if the unforeseen happens, someone misses us. And lastly, I’m getting a DSLR so I can capture these photos better next time.

On the bright side, I did lose my irrational fear of caterpillars that has plagued me for decades. Look at this one, it looks like a baby fox’s tail!

baby fox tail

I’m wooly and I know it!

We all live in a jungle

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

WP_20130519_038Myth: Animals are cute.

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.

Myth: Some animals are dumb, some are smart.P1050500

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!

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Stay still, and move slowly.
  4. 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).
  5. 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.

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