I have been asked more than once about hazards of the wilds. We humans seem fascinated, even titillated, by scary stuff, including animals that can hurt us. Given that I’ve spent most of my professional life working around free-ranging grizzly bears and mountain lions—certainly large, certainly well-able to kill an average human—people seem to expect stories from me about hair-raising encounters. Better yet, scars. By objectives standards, I probably have more than my share of such stories, although no scars, especially when it comes to grizzly bears. Mountain lions are comparative pussy cats.
But in the final analysis, I would have to reckon tree squirrels as being the most dangerous animal in the woods, just ahead of buffalo, moose, and horses—at least by the limited evidence of my life so far. Why? Chiefly because one of the most serious injuries I’ve sustained was attributable to a red squirrel.
Of course, my poor judgement and an unfortunate set of circumstances also played a role, but, without the squirrel, I would have remained whole. There is no set-up quite like having a furious red squirrel dart out at eye level, while you, the victim, are stepping on a slick-barked log on an extremely steep slope positioned directly over a vertical 4”-long and 2”-in-diameter razor-sharp branch stob. Perhaps needless to say, my kids had no end of entertainment during the following month watching a largish puncture wound on my left buttock being treated by my then-wife while I lay face down on the living room floor.
Cleansing the Neighborhood
Despite being titillated by dangerous animals, of which squirrels probably don’t count for most people, there is by-and-large a predictable darker response. Most folks seem to want animals that can hurt them out of the neighborhood, preferably cowering in fear, perhaps even eradicated altogether. Such aversion readily translates into a visceral impulse to revenge perceived harm or injury, often generalized beyond the involved individual animals to entire species, even genera or phyla—bears, lions, snakes, spiders.
Some of my neighbors in the small valley where I live in Montana are exemplars of a perverse and paradoxical juxtapose of aversion to dangerous animals coupled with a decision to move from whatever sanitized landscape they once lived in to an enclave rich in ostensibly hazardous wildlife—including rattlesnakes, mountain lions, black bears, moose, even wolves and grizzly bears.
We have trophy wives who fear to go far from their trophy houses because they expect a lion or bear around any corner. We have a neighborhood cabal that hires professional snake eradicators to kill or remove all the rattlesnakes they can get their hands on. We have naïve newcomers who call local wildlife managers in a panic when they happen to see one of the omnipresent mountain lions. We have a bombastic hedge-fund manager who feeds deer in his back yard, and then wants the lions who come to prey on those deer killed. Interestingly, somewhere in the mix there is usually a story about protecting women and children.
But, Maybe Not
I suppose, in the spirit of fitting in, I should be lobbying for the local eradication of all squirrels, but with allowance for their survival in National Parks, provided toddlers are adequately protected.
Which is a smart-ass way of saying that some of us see the world differently—ourselves, our place, and the place of other sentient beings in a different light than other people do. And, to be fair, there are many in our valley who are generous and tolerant of things that can eat them.
My wife and I are thrilled when we see a bear amble through our yard, even though it may break down the limbs on the chokecherry and serviceberry bushes. We are thrilled when a mountain lion kills a deer in the thickets that border our house—five within the last five years or so, within a few yards of our front and back doors—even though lions have also killed two of our goats. We tolerate rattlesnakes, not only because it’s their home as well as ours, but also because they help keep a lid on the rodent population.
But we make sure the dog and cats are inside at night. After losing the goats, we also make sure the survivors are locked secure in the barn when we retire for the evening. We pay attention when we go outside. We stop taking hikes in the warm rocky habitats favored by rattlesnakes after we’ve seen the first specimen of summer. And we damn sure act with as much poise as we can when we encounter an animal that could potentially hurt us. And we don’t carry guns, because we don’t need to. Common sense and calm serve us better.
But a willingness to accommodate, to exercise self-restraint, and endure inconvenience arises, not only from choice, but also from a specific orientation to the world, rooted in layers of subterranean psychodynamics. It seems like we humans are either inclined more towards curiosity, openness, creativity, novelty, generosity and accommodation, or…intolerance, rigidity, conventionality, orderliness, and fearfulness. And all of this gets embrangled with conservative politics, orientations to people who are different, willingness to perpetuate inequality, fear of death, and the degree to which we are driven by disgust and revulsion in response to anything that appears threatening.
In 2003, John Jost and Arie Kruglanski, among others, published a seminal paper entitled “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition.” In it they reported an analysis of all the studies done to date on psychological correlates of conservative politics. At the top of the list they found dysregulated anxiety about death, followed by intolerance of ambiguity, closed-mindedness, low tolerance for uncertainty, need for order, low cognitive complexity, fear of loss, and low self-esteem. Hardly a flattering picture. Not surprisingly, the paper was highly controversial. But, since then, an irrefutable corpus of research has confirmed their basic thesis and provided insight into additional dimensions and psychological deeps.
One research result is telling. People with conservative political orientations have a well-developed disgust response. This is fundamental stuff. At our most basic, we are either repulsed or attracted by things in the world. Disgust is the primary emotion attached to repulsion. More concretely, conservatives tend to more often and to a greater degree respond with disgust during encounters with the world, especially involving things or situations that seem threatening, which are, for example, often simply people who look different. White American conservatives tend to respond with disgust to photos of blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, and gays in controlled experimental settings. The derivative emotions are typically fear leading to anger. The related impulse is to cleanse, remove, sanitize, dominate, control, and emasculate.
Strange Dark Nexus
Sound familiar? This brings me back to the apparent urgent need among some of my neighbors to cleanse our environs of rattlesnakes and predators. And, of course, these are the same neighbors who have the most immaculate landscaped yards, which are great habitat for rodents and deer, which, of course, attract rattlesnakes and mountain lions. So, sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Which brings me to an oft-repeated but hardly trite point. Everything is connected to everything else. But some things are more closely connected than others. People who are willing to deprive others of health-care, accentuate inequality, and send desperate refuges back to the lethal places they came from are often the same people who sponsor gratuitous rattlesnake killing and shoot masculine animals to stuff and mount in their front parlor. Underneath all this is an almost certain cesspit of ill-managed death anxiety inflamed by a self-constructed world of demons and diseases, yielding an impulse to cleanse, dominate, and control.
How else can we explain grown men who trap, torture, and kill a wolf, and then stand gloating with white KKK-style hoods and an American flag to memorialize their psychopathology? Surely, these same men voted for Trump, a fellow conservative psychopath if ever there was one. Not by coincidence, my affluent seasonal neighbor with a trophy wife, a trophy summer home in Montana, and a stuffed grizzly bear trophy in his den was the only neighbor who prominently displayed a Trump bumper sticker on his over-sized pickup truck and a Trump placard in his front yard.
And, yet, these same people are titillated by stories of close encounters with large ferocious animals. They are the ones who buy Outdoor Life to read stories about guys mauled by grizzly bears—better yet, though, stories where the demonic perpetrator was killed by the heroic white hunter in an act of retribution and revenge. A strange, dark, violent nexus of revulsion and attraction that is not served very well by stories of savage red squirrels.
A Role for Choice
At some level, I don’t know what to do with all of this. The most recent polls suggest that roughly 40% of the American electorate suffer from mild to severe forms of conservative psychopathology. In my home state of Montana, they are the apparent majority. These folks include many who want once-protected grizzly bears and wolves to be sport hunted, both as a source of trophies and as a presumed means of making the world safe. Many also support deporting Muslim refugees and passing legislation that makes Sharia Law illegal in a state where Muslims comprise less than one-tenth of one-percent of the population. My point being that neither discriminating against Muslims nor killing large predators will make anyone safer—more likely the opposite. It all adds up to a mild or not-so-mild form of toxic insanity.
Yet, we all have choice. This point has been frequently, loudly, and passionately debated by philosophers and psychologists, but few would dispute that choice, however construed, is a central human phenomenon. If we are simply automatons driven by the dictates of immutable patterns configured by history and triggered by hormones and neurons, then there is no responsibility, no accountability—and little basis for hope. But, more hopefully, I do think and believe that we can choose the kind of people we want to be, the kind of world we want to live in, and what we want to leave those who come after us. Moreover, hope-instilling megatrends are afoot.
Steven Pinker wrote a powerful book entitled “The Better Angels of Our Nature.” In it he exhaustively documented trends spanning centuries, even millennia, towards ever less violence in human affairs, coupled with an ever-expanding moral universe. In other words, fewer people have been willing to kill or harm others as more and more of us ascribe fully human status to others who are different in appearance and behavior—whether because of skin color, ethnicity, religion, nationality, sex, age, or sexual orientation. More remarkably, this ever-expanding moral universe has begun to include individuals belonging to other species—that is, animals. Pinker is not alone in documenting all of this. The scholarly literature is replete with support for his central thesis.
But I would argue that these megatrends are ultimately—necessarily—rooted in people choosing to be different, whatever their childhood-configured psychodynamics, by whatever increment or margin. And, I would argue, people are by-and-large choosing to be better—more generous, accepting, supportive, accommodating, tolerant, humble, and kind. I cannot imagine that any of us feel very good going through life being arrogant and narcissistic—hating, condemning, rejecting, hurting, and even killing, whatever the psychopathologic pay-offs. I doubt that Trump is a happy human being.
Nature, and the animals therein, have a key role to play in all of this. My life and the lives of many others are testimony to the positive therapeutic effects of being in wild places seeing wild animals. Few people can come away from such experiences without experiencing awe, without being softened. And, from the standpoint of moral evolution, dangerous animals probably have the most to teach us, including humility, generosity, accommodation, tolerance, and skill handling our death anxieties. They make some of the greatest demands on us, our egos, and problematic impulses that originate in our brainstems.
As a species, culture, and society, we human Americans clearly have a long way to go. Having the generosity to ensure that everyone has adequate healthcare and the grace to live with people of different religions and nationalities in our neighborhoods—along with rattlesnakes and mountain lions—is a good place to start.
I have no doubt that the Liberal agenda will prevail.