Refuge Rangers Fight Myths about Creepy Crawlies and Other Wildlife
It’s not just snakes. Other wild creatures inspire exaggerated fears, too: bats; spiders; birds; fish – yes, fish.
In the course of greeting tens of thousands of visitors a year, rangers on national wildlife refuges bump up against many such bugbears. They know which natural–world denizens invariably make some people flinch or go ewww.
One thing they’ve noticed: Whether it’s because today’s visitors tend to live more indoor lives than past generations or watch too many TV survival shows, fears of nature are flourishing -- in all ages.
“We’re seeing more kids sheltered and afraid,” says Ashley Inslee, a biologist at Bosque del Apache Refuge in New Mexico. “Even college kids interested in conservation haven’t been out hunting, fishing, hiking. They’ve seen TV shows or National Geographic and think being outdoors is cool, but it can be uncomfortable at first.”
Different tactics are called for at Florida’s J.N. “Ding” Darling Refuge, where gators are star attractions. “There should be a natural fear we have of them, and they of us; it’s a good thing to be fearful of a large predator like an alligator,” says supervisory refuge ranger Toni Westland. But she puts visitors’ fears in perspective. “We tell them we’re not going to have alligators jumping out of bushes. It’s safe. But it’s only safe because we respect wild animals and don’t feed them.”
Some visitors want to beat back old fears. Mary Stumpp signed on this winter as a volunteer at crane-filled Bosque del Apache Refuge undefined an odd choice for someone with a lifelong fear of birds. Her task: using a tractor to mow corn for feeding sandhill cranes. Slowly, she grew accustomed to seeing flocks overhead. Writes Stumpp, “I began to see the cranes not as a threat but as beautiful creatures. To my surprise, I began to care about them…”
To help anxious visitors, refuge staffers share some proven tactics:
Admit fears of their own. Visitors may be surprised to hear refuge staffers aren’t all fearless. Bosque del Apache Refuge’s deputy manager Aaron Mize owns up to a fear of heights and snakes.
Find out what they know. At Patuxent Refuge, staff meets students on familiar turf before a refuge visit, and throws softball questions: “Do you spend any time outside? What’s your favorite animal?” Staff also invites students to confide fears in writing so they are not embarrassed in front of classmates.
Don’t dissemble. To a child nervous about snakes, you might try: ‘There are snakes here, but we almost never see any. That’s because they’re shy, and they can feel the ground tremble, and they go and hide when they hear people coming.’
Educate about feeding a wild animal. Remind people that wildlife loses their fear of humans if regularly fed by visitors. And tell them never to challenge wildlife.
Let kids adjust at their own pace. Let young people decide if they want to touch a live frog or snake. Respect youngsters’ rights to say “no”. Some refuge staff appoint an anxious young visitor to become their assistant for a day.
Show enthusiasm. Students see that you’re not afraid and they respond. When a youngster sees salamanders and turtles and responds, ‘Oh gross,’ that’s your chance to say, ‘No, they’re so cool,” and explain why.
These kids at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, AZ, are none too sure that they want to get near that snake, harmless as it is. Photo by Andrea Brophy.
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