Continuing the Predator-Prey Inquiry

You recall that Martha Heyneman, in her story “The Never-Ceasing Dance,” (published in the summer 1991 issue of “Parabola” magazine) was concluding her note of what she saw between the cat and the young cardinal:

“Cat and bird have taken on a great dignity, as if two masked gods, supposing themselves unobserved, revealed for a moment their true nature. There is no sign of fear in the bird. He no longer flutters or tries to escape. He knows it is his death he is looking at, his death looking back at him. What passes between the two antagonists in this timeless instant is not fear, or hatred, or murderous triumph, or even, as with the flamenco dancers, the magnetism of sex – though there is something of all these in it. What passes between them is love.”

Martha saw no fear or anger or triumph in that real-life predator-prey relationship: she saw love.

She was certainly not the only one –or first – to have made such observation. Maybe, in the souls of all natural predators and those on which they feed, there is a relationship of love. Maybe it is respect – fundamental to life in the natural order of things. Maybe, as writer Barry Lopez has often said, nature deals a different kind of death than the one men know.

Lopez also had a piece in that 1991 issue. “The Moment of Encounter” speaks of the wolf and his food. To Lopez, the most fascinating moment of the hunt is the initial encounter.

“Wolves and prey may remain absolutely still while staring at each other. Immediately after, a moose may simply walk away; or the wolves turn and run; or the wolves may charge and kill the animal in less than a minute…  I think what transpires in those moments of staring is an exchange of information between predator and prey that either triggers a chase or defuses the hunt right there. The moment of eye contact between wolf and prey seems to be visibly decisive.

“I called this exchange…the conversation of death. It is a ceremonial exchange, the flesh of the hunted in exchange for respect for its spirit… There is, at least, a sacred order in this. There is nobility… It produces, for the wolf, sacred meat.

“When the wolf ‘asks’ for the life of another animal he is responding to something in that animal that says, ‘My life is strong. It is worth asking for.’ A moose may be biologically constrained to die because he is old or injured, but the choice is there. The death is not tragic. It has dignity.”

So much of what Lopez describes is true also of the relationship between the true hunter and the animal he or she will take for sacred food. But what happens to the predator-prey relationship when the conversation of death has been bred out of domestic animals? What about the predator? Lopez considered that, too.

“What happens when a wolf wanders into a flock of sheep and kills twenty or thirty of them in apparent compulsion is perhaps not so much slaughter as a failure on the part of the sheep to communicate anything at all – resistance, mutual respect, appropriateness – to the wolf. The wolf has initiated a sacred ritual and met with ignorance.”

And what of humans who’ve lost the ability to carry on the conversation of death? What implications lie in this for our fears for ourselves and our friends? How do we protect ourselves and our families if we cannot deal with our predators in a clear honest way?

These are the kinds of questions which have filled my mind since Deborah Essman and I started this conversation nearly two decades ago. Deborah has hunted mountain lions – on foot – with husband Bill. Or alone. Friends have often expressed concern for her safety, and she always, and still, patiently assures them she is not “prey.”

She knows a little about the concept. She was commissioned as a wildlife officer in 1983, after surviving the Washington State Patrol Training Academy and being accredited by the Criminal Justice Training Center. She has spent countless hours afield, watching wildlife and people, thinking about how they interact with each other and among themselves. I once asked her to put down some of her thoughts about all this stuff, and have recently reviewed them with her.

In my writing about humans and predators, I have often repeated Theodore Roosevelt’s view of the mountain lion as a cowardly predator. She had a different way to think of lion behavior. And maybe something more along the lines of Lopez’ “conversation of death.”

“Re: T.R. and his cougars… I revere the man… but… experience leads me to think of these cats as arrogant, confidant, and maybe even blasé towards humans – certainly not cowardly. Their mantra might be better summed up as ‘discretion is the better part of valor.’ (A) predator does not want to expend any more calories than it has to, to procure a meal.”

To be concluded…


Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

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