Great and terrible flesh-eating beasts have always shared landscape with humans… among the earliest forms of human self-awareness was the awareness of being meat. – David Quammen, Monster of God
The question arose as our group stood outside the lemur enclosure. As a tour guide, I had just finished discussing the acquisition of our lemurs, Jeremiah and Cookie, and how Conservators Center staff had been initially hesitant to accept two primates on site, as we had only worked with carnivores before then.
The gentleman’s question caught me off guard. “I’m sorry?”
Most tour questions generally fall into one of several categories. For example, there are issues of habitat (“Will your animals ever be released into the wild?”), those of exotic animal ownership (“Do servals make good pets?”), questions about the animals themselves (“Where did you say Archer Binturong is from?”), and so on.
This one, however, was new, and fit no easy category.
“Carnivores,” he repeated. “Don’t get me wrong, they’re cool and all, but why the original focus on carnivores? Before you guys decided to bring in primates.” He paused and looked around to ensure he had the group’s focus. “Not counting the ones already here.” He waited with a smile on his face, weighing his sense of comedic timing. “You know, the ones outside the cages.” And then, in case there was any doubt: “Us. People.”
Not only had he stolen my usual joke at the lemur enclosure—“Can anyone name the other primate species on site right now?”—and subsequently butchered the punchline, but he had the temerity to ask a completely original question, one not covered in tour guide training. For his trouble, I considered not warning him about being sprayed by the big cats.*
Fortunately, those of us leading tours know the basics of an answer to this question. The Conservators Center was originally founded as a home of last resort for exotic carnivores, as these were the animals with which our founders had the most experience. As primates, lemurs require an entirely different set of needs. So it had been only after much research and training that the Center agreed to accept first Jeremiah and then Cookie Lemur, two animals very different from anything else living at the Center.
I explained this to the guest, who nodded through the answer and yet did not seem quite satisfied. Just as he started to say something else, several girls in the group squealed and leapt backwards away from Cookie, who was performing a handstand with her rear end pressed into the fencing. I reassured the group that no, Cookie was not about to spray them, she was just marking her territory. I mentally thanked her for the distraction and led the group away.
The tour continued and ended without any other issues, but the guest’s question lingered in my mind. Why exactly the original focus on carnivores? Sure, prior experience played a role, but our staff had learned quickly about primates. It seemed feasible they could do so again with other species. Why limit ourselves? Were there not equally interesting and fascinating non-carnivorous creatures in need of placement? As for education and conservation—the other two parts to our mission—who would not want to learn about and protect other rare primate species, or even hoofstock, like antelope?
And so, although I technically knew the reasoning behind the decision, there seemed to be something more, something missing. It would take time to develop a more complete answer.
Earlier this year, and many tours later, I was invited to give a presentation entitled When Nature Bites Back at the Southeastern Student Wilderness Medicine Conference in Huntington, West Virginia. Wilderness medicine, once considered a fringe specialty, has developed into a well-researched discipline, with a peer-reviewed academic journal, sub-specialty fellowships, and advanced learning courses like the one to which I was invited. Medical encounters in the wilderness present their own unique challenges and pathologies, and training in traditional, urban-based medical settings does not always readily transfer to the backcountry, thus the extracurricular courses.
One reason prompting the evolution of wilderness medicine has been the escalating numbers of people frequenting remote and wilderness areas. At times these individuals may have little or no backcountry experience and, moreover, often find themselves in areas inhabited by carnivorous animals. That fact, coupled with the rising numbers of large predators wandering into urban areas as humans encroach upon their habitats, demonstrates an increasing need to teach people both how to interact with these animals and how to recognize the potential threats they can pose.
And so, I arrived at Marshall University to deliver not one but four lectures back to back on the prevention and treatment of attacks by large North American predators. Included in the presentation were such conceivably helpful tips as methods to scare off cougars, the difference in defense tactics against black bears and grizzlies, the pros and cons of bear repellant, defense against wild dogs, and which direction to run from an alligator (hint: away is a good start). Additionally, the executive department of the Conservators Center had loaned me several bio-samples to provide a real hands-on aspect to the presentation. Students could measure the actual size a big cat’s fang, witness the elegance of a full bobcat skeleton, explore the anatomical adaptations of a domestic cat’s skull, and compare jaw castings of wolf, fox, and felid. These tangible examples cultivated in the students a much deeper appreciation for the sheer power inherent in these animals than a simple lecture would have.
The talk was more than just a presentation on worst-case scenarios; it also served as an introduction to the wonders of carnivores using pictures of animals from the Center to illustrate certain relevant features. For example, the discussion on feliform (or “cat-like”) meat-eaters included the binturong—a Southeast Asian viverrid that few people have seen outside of our facility—with a photograph of Cole Bearcat Binturong serving as representative for the species. An up-close picture of Ezebert Jungle Cat provided an opportunity to teach about felid anatomy, while an image of Trekkie Monster Wolf functioned as backdrop for the discussions on wolves.
As a memorable capstone, each lecture ended with a video of the Center’s lions during an “oofing.” Even through computer speakers, one could sense the force of these animals roaring to each other. Not a few jaws dropped in amazement, and much excited talk ensued about coming to see the Center for themselves as the students filed out.
On a personal note, preparing for these lectures meant learning as much as possible about these animals in order to present intelligently on them. Not much science exists regarding animal attacks, as there’s a not-so-surprising lack of volunteers for such studies. Therefore, the majority of my preparations meant delving into the unique adaptations of carnivores, such as the long-legged endurance race of a wolf hunt, the microbiologic environment within the feline mouth, the brutal truths of obligate carnivores.
One can’t help but become cognizant of, and even slightly uncomfortable with, certain facts through such study. The very structures and bodies of these creatures have been crafted over eons towards a single purpose. The carnassial molars (from which the name “carnivore” derives) used to shear meat from bone, the greater leverage (and therefore increased bite force) created by the raised sagittal ridge running along the top of a carnivorous skull, the fact that the canine teeth of big cats actually have nerves running through them so the cats can literally feel their way into their prey’s spinal cord—all of these discomfiting facts provide stark reminders to the function of these animals.
Yet despite, or maybe even because of these facts, meat-eaters tend to hold a certain fascination for people. Any visit to a zoo or natural park reveals similar trends. When people travel to Yellowstone, it’s true that they want to see elk and bison, but the most well-traveled areas are those where wolves can be viewed 1. People snap photos of deer and elk in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, but will often leave the safety of their cars to watch a bear lumber by.
And so, it was while driving home from the conference and reflecting upon the students’ reactions to the animal’s physical traits—tooth, jaw, claw—that another piece of the mental puzzle fell into place. We, meaning humanity throughout the ages, have lived with these animals for thousands of years, and have developed a relationship with them so deep and primal it has been driven into our very genes. From where else did our startle reflex originate, our abiding fear of the dark arise, if not from repeated exposure to man-eating beasts bursting forth from the night? Even at the Center, where adults generally exclaim in wonder after an up-close experience with the lions’ oofing, children not uncommonly burst into tears or try to hide, stricken with fear, behind their parents. Perhaps—their imaginative faculties not yet ossified, their reality not yet void of monsters—children’s reactions are the more appropriate.
Because of this inherent fear and the dangers these animals pose to humans, it should be no surprise that despite their magnificence, the majority of the world’s big predators are dying off at alarming rates. Our ever-increasing incursions into the wilderness take their toll. The danger is that, in losing our predators, not only will nature lose what may be the determining factor of biodiversity health (a topic too involved for this article), but we humans may also lose an essential part of our past, a part of our very psyche, and become so much the poorer for it.
Thus, the presentation was meant not to provoke anxiety but rather teach an abiding admiration for these animals among those who spend time in the backcountry. Because of its divergence from the mainstream, wilderness medicine has at times been maligned for pandering to those seeking an ego-trip or self-aggrandizement. The same charge has been leveled at those who work with exotic animals, a vivid example being a recent National Geographic article2.
While at times there may be truth to these accusations, it is not the case for the majority of us who choose such pursuits. The same force which draws people to the out of doors also drives those of us who frequent the Center. It is desire for communion with nature, with something larger than ourselves, and can be experienced equally well by hiking through virgin forest, scaling a steep rock wall, or visiting with an apex predator. Regarding the latter, it has become almost cliche to talk of the wonder of being in the presence of these awe-inspiring animals—and yet the cliche persists because of its inherent truth.
Why carnivores? Because these animals form a critical component of our world and ourselves and, somewhere deep down inside of us, in the phantoms of our subconscious, many of us still recognize and respect that fact.
By Jeff Walden, MD
Tour Guide and Volunteer at the Conservators Center
*The safety and comfort of our guests is of the utmost importance to the Conservators Center tour guides, and of course no guide would willingly allow guests to be sprayed by a big cat.^