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Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Hunters and the Hunted

"'Maybe he's down hunting the apatosaurs," Grant said.

Regis laughed, his voice tinny over the radio. 'He would if he could, believe me.  Sometimes he stands by the lagoon and stares at those animals, and wiggles those little forearms of his in frustration.  But the T-rex territory is completely enclosed with trenches and fences.  They're disguised from view, but believe me, he can't go anywhere.'"

- Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park

I'm not trying to be morbid, but it's been a source of mild disappointment to me that I've never seen a kill.  Over the course of several safaris, I've seen all five of Africa's great mammalian predators - lion, leopard, cheetah, spotted hyena, and African wild dog - but have never seen them in action.  I always take some solace, however, in the fact that I know very, very few people who ever have.  Some have been purely lucky, others have earned the right as a result of spending months or years in the field, watching and waiting.  All of this, of course, is in complete contrast to Planet Earth, where you see a successful hunt every other scene.

Predation is one of the most fascinating, most obsessed aspects of the animal kingdom... but it's also one of the least observed.

In zoos, the large predators are among the most popular species on display, and they are often exhibited in close proximity to their prey, sometimes even appearing to share a habitat.  At Milwaukee County Zoo, I saw cheetahs and impalas, polar bears and seals, and jaguar and tapir, each in their own panorama of predation.  I've seen similar displays at other zoos around the country.  I know the lion can't cross the moat and get the giraffes on the other side, but it still creates a thrill to see the interaction from across the divide.

Sometimes, however, I've heard visitors express concerns.  Isn't it stressful for the zebras to constantly feel the eyes of the lions upon them?  Isn't it cruel to the lion to have the zebras so close, yet just out of reach?  I recently had a visitor at our zoo ask me who "the joker" was who thought it was a good idea to place the wolves next to the deer.  The way he chuckled, I assume he thought that either we were too dumb to realize the irony (as he saw it) of the display, or that we were just jerks.

I wonder what he would have said if he'd seen what I had that morning - a wolf and a doe, standing directly opposite one another on the separate fence lines of their yards, carefully sniffing one another and looking for all the world like a pair of star-crossed lovers, caught in the act.

The truth is that the animals are smarter than many guests and plenty of keepers give them credit for being.  The predators know they can't catch the prey and don't try.  The prey know the predators won't get them, and soon relax.  Yes, it can make for a few jumpy moments when a new animal is introduced to the set-up.  Towards the end of the day, everyone settles down...mostly.

At one zoo where I worked, spider monkeys were displayed adjacent to ocelot.  Everyone ignored one another completely.  Eventually, the ocelot passed away.  Shortly afterwards, we acquired a new ocelot who moved into the enclosure.  The day they saw that cat for the first time, the monkeys freaked.  They were fine with their old neighbor, but they immediately knew that this cat was different... and they weren't okay with that.  At first, anyway.  After a week of giving the new ocelot the stink eye, the spider monkeys settled back into amicable indifference.

If anything, I think exhibiting the species in proximity does both some good.  The predator is stimulated and engaged by the presence of prey.  The presence of the predator keeps the prey cautious and on its toes.  As long as both species have space to get away from their immediate vicinity, and privacy or visual barriers, it can be a fine set up. 

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