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On Fear, Predation, And Treating Men As Wild Animals

Modified from flickr /SAVERY_Roelandt_Landscape_With_Wild_Animals

For those of us who have always been held to a higher standard — who have never had the privilege to unleash any “wild” tendencies — we know collectively what’s possible.

“I tell my kids, if you have self-control, you have everything,” says Melanie, the innkeeper at our B&B in Fairbanks, Alaska. “It applies to any situation, whether it’s with a wild animal, a school bully, me and their dad. Self-control… it will serve them well anywhere.”

A few days later, my husband and I are sitting in the Denali National Park Visitors’ Center, watching a wildlife safety video. Home to grizzly bears, moose, and caribou, among other creatures, the park is one of the few places remaining in the U.S. where humans are intruders—and need to behave accordingly.

We like to hike, but we’ve never encountered anything larger than deer in the wild, so we’ve been leaning toward exploring Denali behind the protective steel and glass of our rental car. But just in case we feel like wimps once we’re out in the forest, we decide to watch the video so we can make a last-minute call. The trails are open year-round, after all; we can always stoke our bravery later.

Four guides narrate the 30-minute video, structured as a list of do’s and don’ts. The tips for bears in particular are enlightening:

  • Minimize surprises—make noise to announce your presence
  • Suppress any scents so you don’t attract bears—no fragrances, all food in bear-proof packs
  • Stay vigilant: When stopping, choose sites with good visibility. Have everyone in your group face a slightly different direction, so you can see anything approaching
  • Bears are curious, and their behavior is contextual; you never want to provoke or set precedent (e.g., don’t keep food in or near your tent—then they’ll think tents equal food)
  • Keep bear spray close—you don’t want to be fumbling for it in a crucial moment. Make sure you know how to use it before you head out
  • If you do come upon a bear and it spots you, don’t run! (That could trigger the bear’s predatory chase drive.) Back away if possible, but don’t turn your back on the bear. If you can’t retreat, stand your ground and put your arms over your head to look as large as possible
  • If the bear attacks, lie in the fetal position, cover your head and neck

As the video wrapped up all the different ways hikers and campers could get in trouble, one of the youthful park rangers offered a final thought: “Don’t be afraid to go out and explore!”

Despite this encouragement, we ultimately opted to stick to our original plan. We drove to Mile 30 and back on Denali’s main road on two consecutive days: the first in afternoon sunshine, the second in morning mist and light rain. On both occasions, the weather revealed different shades of the mountains and valleys, and a variety of animals came out to greet us: bald eagles, caribou, and yes—two grizzly bears. The afternoon bear sidled down the mountain and crossed the road, less than 30 feet from our car; the morning bear stayed up on the hillside, munching on the brush. We snapped a few pictures, the gargantuan beasts transformed into mere specks on our smartphone cameras. We continued on our way, enclosed and safe.

But something about the situation rattled me, and it took me a few days to understand just what exactly it was.

I acknowledged that when I go hiking at home in New England, I am seeking out silence, as well as the opportunity to clear my mind. The recommendations for Denali—being loud and constantly on high alert—seemed in direct opposition to what I’ve always pursued when I hit the trail. I hike to relax, and this type of endeavor was vigilant — maybe even tense.

In fact, I thought, if I wanted to be constantly on the lookout and poised for a potential attack, I’d just stay home and continue my usual, “commuting on public transportation” and “woman walking alone in the city,” routines.

But something about the situation rattled me, and it took me a few days to understand just what exactly it was. Click To Tweet

Suddenly I realized that those safety tips from the National Park Service video weren’t so different from what I learned in a self-defense class a few years back.

  • Stay constantly alert! Don’t wear earbuds or talk on your phone. Know your surroundings at all times.
  • When going out, look large: Practice safety in numbers
  • Dress conservatively, watch how much skin you’re showing—you don’t want to trigger a prey drive
  • Yell and make noise so others know you’re in trouble
  • If you’re going to carry pepper spray, make sure you know how to use it. Otherwise it could be grabbed and used against you!

And it then hit me—do we regard men the same way we regard wild animals?

I thought of Mike Pence, who refuses to dine or be alone with any woman who isn’t his wife. Louis C.K.’s compulsions. School dress codes that make sure girls don’t distract boys. The string of assaults against women in my former Boston neighborhood — conducted over repeated years by the alleged same assailant — which terrorized residents so much that the local community center provided the aforementioned self-defense classes free of charge.

I thought of the flood of #MeToo stories, encompassing friends and strangers, famous men and everyday men. My own stories, my friends’ stories. In every case, the proprieties of respect and social mores fall away and the feral urges dominate the experience (and headlines). That sense of unpredictability, that succumbing to animal nature, sets the foundation for repeated indignities—and worse.

He can’t be controlled. You need to be smart. (You need to take that self-defense class!)

Boys will be boys—it’s in their nature.   

Don’t tempt him or be a tease—he can’t help it.

Do we regard men the same way we regard wild animals? Click To Tweet

We took a red eye home from Anchorage and promptly fell asleep. When we were somewhere over the Midwest, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford started her testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Jet-lagged and bleary-eyed, I watched a video recording of her opening statement later that evening. She was composed, with self control.

I watched Justice Kavanaugh, raging and roaring; Lindsay Graham, red-faced and sputtering; both as volatile as creatures disturbed in the wild. And I suppose they were—here was an interloper daring to call out how they roamed their habitat. In both her statement and replies, Dr. Ford refused to continue the narrative that they had no self control.

Of course, this narrative won’t go away quietly—cultural mores built over millennia don’t just course correct or even adapt immediately. Just this month, for example, the Atlantic gave Newt Gingrich a lengthy (and often bizarre) profile, opening the story with its subject stomping around in a zoo and featuring choice quotes comparing all of human nature to the animal kingdom. Photos show him grinning alongside menacing dinosaur skulls and petting giant turtles.

“It’s not viciousness, it’s natural,” he chides after the reporter pushes back. Later in the story, citing a 2016 speech Gingrich gave to the Heritage Foundation, our president is compared to (what else?) a grizzly bear—specifically, the ferocious bear in the movie The Revenant: “He will walk over, bite your face off, and sit on you.”

Here was an interloper daring to call out how they roamed their habitat. Click To Tweet

But for those of us who have never wielded power — who have never been regarded (or permitted to be regarded) as wild or ferocious — we know by default that there are other ways of moving through the world.

For those millions of us who have always been held to a higher standard — who have never had the privilege to unleash any “wild” tendencies — we know collectively what’s possible. That we all can do better. That the narrative of “nature dictates violence” has to stop. In short — that we all can exercise self control.  

Two days after we returned home, my husband and I drove up to Plum Island for a hike through the nature preserve. The sun was high and the salt marshes spread as far as the eye could see. It was quite a departure from Denali—mostly flat without a predator in sight.

But at a certain point, I got ahead of Andy on the boardwalk trail, and saw a solo man a few feet away. The wind rustled through the brush that flanked the narrow pathway. It was just him and me as we approached each other. He could be a bear, I thought, or he could be a crane.

And just like that, all senses were firing.

I took a deep breath. Self control, I thought, and hoped it would be enough.

I wondered if he had even an inkling of the same thought.

“Hello,” I said as we made eye contact.

“Beautiful day,” he said, and we continued our opposite ways.