|Andrew Oberle at the Jane Goodall Institute Chimpanzee Eden Sanctuary. |
Photo from the HelpAndrewOberle Facebook page.
Know your animals.
This includes knowing the natural history and behaviors of the species you will be interacting with, training in and using appropriate precautions (safety gloves?), and recognizing and responding effectively to threat or fear indicators. Know what stimuli your animals are particularly sensitive to. A journalist on a photography safari in Tanzania cut his head on a timber beam in camp. The next day, their driver inched their Land Cruiser up to a group of lionesses for a photograph when one of the lionesses began to approach the vehicle while sniffing the air, likely following the blood scent. This group was smart enough to give up the photo opportunity and drive away.
You also need to know the specific population or individual animals you will work with. Are they hungry or well-fed? Do they have experience with humans? Researchers working with American alligators note that populations that have been fed by humans are much more dangerous than those that have no human experience. This is true of many other species as well. Were the animals abused? Do they have a history of aggression or anxiety? In the case of the chimpanzees at the Jane Goodall Institute Chimpanzee Eden Sanctuary, many of them have been rescued from abusive situations and have abnormally high levels of fear and aggression as a result.
If you can read the animals you are working with, you will be better able to avoid postures they may perceive as threatening (such as approaching them directly or with quick motions, using eye contact, and showing your teeth). Hopefully this will help prevent a dangerous animal reaction, but will also help you to prepare if an animal does attack.
Give them space.
Most animals have a comfort zone, just like we do. If you get in their personal space, they are likely to feel threatened. Sometimes we get in an animal’s comfort zone on purpose because it is part of the job, and this is when training and protective gear is vital. Even more dangerous is when we unknowingly get in an animal’s comfort zone and provoke a startle response in everyone involved. One wildlife guide did not realize how close he had gotten to some elephants standing behind bushes. They were apparently caught off-guard too and responded by chasing him to his car… and then after his car! But these surprises can happen closer to home too. In the field I always check my boots before I put them on: You never know what snake, scorpion, or spider may have snuggled into them for the night. But I often forgot to check my clothes. That changed after a tarantula crawled out of my pants leg while I was walking to work! A local later identified the tarantula as a “matacaballo” or “horse-killer”. Be aware of your surroundings and never put your clothes or boots on without checking them first.
Wild animals are a lot more likely to flee than attack when given the space to do so. For this reason, be especially cautious of animals in captivity and don’t corner an animal without the appropriate training and equipment. Don’t keep trying to get closer for a better picture if the animal seems wary of you. And no matter how tempting, don’t push a mother with cubs to get a better picture. One wildlife photographer was graciously spared by an angry tigress, but another photographer shooting a hippo with her baby was not as lucky.
Respect them – They are smarter, stronger, and faster than you think.
One researcher recalled a time that he was working with a restrained pigtailed macaque in the lab. A technician, rocking the lab-necktie, was entertaining himself by leaning over and pestering the monkey. Suddenly, the monkey grabbed his necktie, pulled his face closer, reached down with its other hand to pick up a pile of poo, and smeared it on the pesty technician’s face. The wise monkey’s advice here: Don’t. Just, don’t.
And on a similar note, even cute, cuddly-looking baby owls (and other species) can bite and scratch the bejeezus out of you. Don’t let your guard down when handling baby wild animals just because they’re adorable.
Remember that animals are not the greatest risk in the field… Not by a longshot.
|Photo by Paul Downey at the UK Ministry of Works |
on Wikimedia Commons.
By Sunday, Andrew’s condition had stabilized and he was moved from critical condition to intensive care. He has now undergone two surgeries and remains sedated. If you would like to leave a message of support for Andrew and his family, his friends have set up a Facebook page. If you would like to donate to Andrew’s medical costs and his family’s travel expenses, you can donate here. And if you would like to learn about and donate to the Thin Green Line, an organization that supports Park Rangers in developing nations and conflict zones, go here.
Thanks to everyone who contributed stories and advice for this piece: Stephen Ambrose, Ian Batterman, Al Beck, Devendra Bhardwaj, Dennis Owusu Boateng, Sam Bryks, Denise Donovan, Carrie Duafala, David Gaines, Jerry Haigh, Caleb Hickman, Pat Hoy, Denis Lane, Lisa Langell, Tom Larimer, Jacqueline Levine, David Manning, Bery Pannkuk, Rob Parkin, Sabyasachi Patra, John Pemberton, Steve Phelps, Kath Potgieter, Brad Rence, David Sinn, John Taylor, Ann Turner, Veronika Valdova, Joep van de Vlasakker, Armonía Vega Quintero, and Menno Witteveen.