Earlier this week, two lions attacked an 18-year-old woman from Montreal who was volunteering at a wildlife rehabilitation centre in South Africa.
Lauren Fagen was apparently trying to kiss the fur of a large male lion when it reached through the bars and dragged her legs into the cage. A female lion joined the attack.
Fagen suffered flesh wounds to her legs and feet, and remains in hospital.
Despite warnings, some of us think that wild animals are safe to be around, a misconception perpetuated by YouTube videos of cute, baby bears. The cuddly stuffed animals we receive as young children are also to blame, says Jon Mooallem, author of Wild Ones.
In his book, Mooallem tells the story of how the teddy bear came to be. President Theodore Roosevelt was hunting in Mississippi and refused to shoot a bear that one of his aides had tied to a tree for him – he thought it would be unsportsmanlike.
A cartoon that appeared the next day in the Washington Post with the caption “Teddy’s Bear” started the phenomenon.
“Once you back an animal into a corner like that, you can start to feel kind of sympathetic affection or a romance about it,” Mooallem said.
“We live in a sanitized version of nature, where all animals are cute and cuddly and we are ‘protected’ from reality,” said Suzanne MacDonald, an associate professor of psychology and biology at York University.
She said most television programs gloss over the fact that wild animals are vicious, and rip apart their prey .
“Anyone who lives with them understands they’re wild animals and you are the prey,” MacDonald said.
“You don’t see people from Kenya going up to lions and trying to kiss them,” she said.
While we should recognize wild animals are dangerous, Mooallem says human emotion will also protect them from environmental and other threats.
In his book, Mooallem cites a study that examined the Los Angeles Times’s coverage of cougars between 1985 and 1995. When their population was low, they were described as majestic and innocent but after 1990, when their numbers increased and they began moving into the city and attacking people, this majestic image vanished: They were cold-blooded killers.
Mooallem says this is a familiar cycle. “Once you stop being so afraid of animals in a visceral way you can see them as noble and cuddly and delightful,” he said.
As Fagen recovers in hospital, the question remains: How do we teach children to love animals while remaining aware of their predatory nature?
Mooallem says one of the most important things parents can do is introduce their children to local wildlife while also reminding them not to get too close as wild animals can do a lot of damage.
“Clearly there’s a need for more education,” MacDonald said. She’s a fan of zoos, where very real information is posted outside animals’ cages, depicting what they’re capable of, and reminding visitors to maintain a healthy distance.
Put simply, Mooallem said, “the thing about wild animals is that they’re wild.”