Humans and Nature: Safety Not Guaranteed

Marathon runner attacked by bear. Colorado woman rescues son from jaws of mountain lion. Alligator drowns child at Disney World.

These are just the most notable animal-human encounter headlines from the last few weeks. Google “hiker dies,” and you’ll find several more stories from recent days of people who tragically lost their lives in wild terrain.

Each of these stories is surprising and dismaying–difficult to comprehend. Things seem to be going just fine, and then suddenly nature strikes and someone’s life is in the balance. Social media and mainstream news bring these encounters front-and-center, and we collectively wonder how such a thing is possible in modern society.

Disney should have been patrolling the local waterways, relocating dangerous wildlife, monitoring children at the shore, and putting up signs everywhere warning guests about natural threats.

Lost in nearly all of the conversation about that particular incident is the fact that Disney has built a massive resort in the midst of a complex ecosystem that’s been present and evolving for countless years before humans artificially built their vacation village on top. Is it reasonable to think that with over a million alligators in Florida any human planning is going to be able to ensure a gator won’t be in a given area? When a business has already put up signage saying not to enter the water at the boundary of the resort, should they further have to explain that it’s because a predatory native species everyone should know about may be lurking there in the habitat it’s reigned in long before humans showed up?

Much of the world is now an artificial expanse of human civilization that blankets the existing wild environment. No one expects in suburban Colorado to find a mountain lion in their yard. No one expects to come across a bear and cub while running a marathon. No one expects a child wading into the resort lagoon to be pulled underwater by a gator.

No one expects these things because we believe that our modern society is one of total human domination, ingenuity, and control. We are the top predator, the hunter, the inventor, the architect. Wild predators and wild terrain are dangerous nuisances that should already be engineered out of our experience of the world.

There’s no question we are a dominant, controlling species today. We now alter the climate of the whole planet. We’ve caused many of the Earth’s animals to go extinct or become severely underpopulated. We explore high and low (and leave our mark with trash)–in the near space of our solar system and in the deepest depths of the ocean. No other animal on the planet has done or is doing this.

At the same time, things were not always this way for us. Before they went extinct, there were a number of animals that we were prey to–giant hyenas, cave bears and cave lions, snakes, saber-toothed cats, and others. We were not always at the top of everything, and no matter what we want to believe, we’re still not in control of everything. There remain predators and wild environmental features that can threaten, wound, and kill us.

So, yes, it is absolutely shocking and saddening when someone is severely hurt or even killed by the tooth and claw of nature. My heart breaks for anyone who’s lost a loved one to a violent storm, jagged terrain, or a deadly creature.

But the reason these stories are breaking news is the veil of civilization makes them less common and existential than they were for hundreds of thousands of years. Our faith in utter domination and control may one day be an all-encompassing reality as we continue to alter the planet: no more animal attacks, threatening storms, or fatal terrain. But for now, our existence is one of fragility and unpredictability. Our reality is that safety is not guaranteed. We are always wrestling with the elements and need to be vigilant–whether it’s at a resort or deep in the woods.

 

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