Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Nature, red in tooth and claw

That phrase from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem In Memoriam A.H.H., published in 1850, certainly communicates the frequently savage nature of….nature. These days, however, we do not want to be confronted with the reality of predator and prey. I found that out last week while at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo here in Colorado Springs. The shocking carnage took place outside of cages and enclosures, which was perhaps even more surprising to zoo guests.

I was on my way back to my wife’s building, Primate World, when I encountered what I thought were three screaming Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels racing down the hill right toward me. They veered off down another path. My initial thought was that I had no idea ground squirrels were that territorial. Then I saw the last one in line. It was not another ground squirrel. It was an adult Long-tailed Weasel, Mustela frenata. My jaw dropped. A zoo staffer grinned and said “That was a weasel. He wants him some chipmunk!” I told him I noticed that, but didn’t correct his identification of the prey.

One of the ground squirrels had the smarts to sit down right at the intersection of all three paved trails, literally plastering itself to the asphalt. I looked down the other path and noticed the chase was still in progress. I ran after them, hoping my camera had just enough battery life to eke out another picture.

By the time I caught up to the weasel, it had caught up with the ground squirrel, seizing it by the throat in front of several astonished members of the public. A mother and son encroached right on the predator and its victim. The son actually kicked the weasel, apparently hoping to save the doomed squirrel. I pushed him away, but must have looked like a crazed member of the paparazzi myself, frantically trying to focus my camera on the unfolding drama.

The weasel, unfazed by any of this, ran back uphill, maybe right between my legs, before aborting his trip and diving into a crevice in a rock retaining wall. All I got was a blurry image of weasel rear (see below).

I was forced to remember my initial purpose of borrowing batteries from my wife, and headed back again toward her building. Along the way I met with a horrific scene by any standards. Yet another ground squirrel was barely twitching in the middle of the path, with an enormous bloodstain behind it, quickly evaporating in the late morning heat. Parents were mortified and tried to find a zoo staff person to clean up the crime scene.

Once I got batteries, I headed back out, and optimistically surmised the weasel might come back for the ground squirrel it left for dead. I was right, but zoo guests had surrounded the now-deceased rodent to “protect” it from the weasel.

I found it mostly useless to pontificate on the fact that this is how nature works. At least one person agreed, but even he defended those who did not want their children to witness such brutality.

”Oh, no, Al-vin-n-n-n-n!” mocked one adult.

Well, there was one problem right there. Most people mistake Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels for chipmunks. I honestly can’t blame them in this case because these were young squirrels, not much, if any, larger than a chipmunk. Adult GMGSs are substantially larger than their similarly-striped cousins.

Before I continue, I must admit that there are animals I don’t like much, either, namely crocodilians, lions, and praying mantids. Watch any television nature program about those creatures, and the graphic scenes of predation are the only scenes. It amounts to unintentional propaganda against predators that makes us feel sorry for the prey. Still, I am well aware of the necessity of these apex predators to the health of an ecosystem. I don’t know that your average person is equally attuned.

Most people never get to see a weasel. Until now, I was under the impression they were extremely secretive animals you barely got a glimpse of….if you were lucky. Not one other person I encountered during and after the events I’ve described felt the same way. At least they did not communicate that emotion. My good luck wasn’t over, either. While the others stood guard over the “chipmunk,” I noticed the weasel had returned, threading its way through human legs and diving down a burrow on the other side of the split rail fence. I decided it was bound to come out again.

A crew of two came and unceremoniously disposed of the GMGS, and the party of bystanders broke up. I was about to give up on the prospect of the weasel ever surfacing again when….Voila! Up it popped with yet another ground squirrel in tow. It paused at the mouth of the tunnel allowing me to fire off a few shots with my camera as it licked the bloody throat of this latest victim. Eventually it grabbed the squirrel and dashed back across the path and bounded up the rocky slope above, eventually disappearing. By now I had understood that the weasel was either caching its kills or feeding its offspring, or both.

The weasel actually came back again, dragging out another carcass, but that was the last I saw of it.

So much for a “teachable moment.” Apparently parents, when given a choice, will shield their children from reality. I wonder if these same mothers and fathers will let their kids play videogames with explicit human-killing-human violence.

I won’t let the zoo off the hook on this one, either. The folks who picked up the ground squirrel were robbing the weasel of its prey. They were robbing zoo guests of a quick lesson in ecology. This is at least the second time such a drama between weasel and ground squirrel has played out at the zoo recently. No mention on the zoo’s blog. Lots of neat recipes, though. No interpretive signs explaining the Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel is not a chipmunk….and that guests should probably not be sharing their food with those rodents.

What opinions do you have? Should a zoo “sanitize” the visitor experience? How do we reach people in a way that does not insult their intelligence, but also doesn’t shy away from the hard truths of how nature works? I’m eager to have a discussion here and look forward to your comments and exchanges with one another.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with you. It's doubly hypocritical - not only is the zoo imprisoning animals so it can claim to show wild behavior, but it's actually stopping a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to watch real wild behavior. Plus, it's condoning the slaughter of animals for meat while robbing a wild predator of a meal it truly needs. Any zoo would show the kids leopard feeding time. And the kids can go get chicken nuggets and a hamburger right after.