Inside the Envelope
I sat at the edge of a marshy meadow, a few miles out of Homer, Alaska. A cow and yearling calf moose grazed peacefully, caught in warm evening light. Behind me, on the road, I heard a squeal of brakes, and a big Winnebago-type rig pulled over. Out popped an enthusiastic older couple, camcorder at the ready. Talking and pointing excitedly, they headed straight for the moose, stopping now and then to shoot some footage — some of which featured the woman and the animals in the same frame, waving to the grandkids back home. The moose, used to a certain amount of human commotion, ignored the ruckus at first. But as the couple bored in, the cow broke off her grazing. Standing stiff-legged, she scanned her surroundings and the calf picked up her cue. Off they trotted, into the brush. The couple — friendly, nice folks from somewhere in the Midwest — waved and said hello as they bustled back to their camper. They went on their way, thrilled at their wildlife encounter. The moose were nowhere to be seen.
I’ve seen the same scenario replay itself uncounted times over the years. Wildlife sighted. People gather. Out come the binoculars, cameras, and so on, and the crowd presses in, motivated by the apparently irresistible desire to get close. Animals leave. Most of the million or so annual visitors to the state have come thousands of miles hoping for face time with charismatic megafauna (science-speak for large, sexy critters), and they’re not about to pass up a chance. I don’t blame them. I’ve been part of a few mob scenes myself. Grizzlies are nice, but on a slow day, a porcupine or fox will do. Whether you’re driving down the Seward Highway, boating the fiords of Southeast, or walking the sedge flats of the Katmai coast, it’s easy to find the wildlife. Just look for the traffic jam, and the groups of eager homo sapiens gathered about hoping to carve out a personal slice of Alaska.
No doubt wildlife viewing boosts the economy, and provides magnetic excitement for residents and visitors alike. But imagine looking outward from the perspective of a creature at the focal point of one of these tourist pileups. Any animal—including each of us — lives inside an invisible envelope of personal space. We’re not talking about territory, which refers to a given area that a creature may use or live in, and even leave. Our envelope surrounds us wherever we go, and it expands and contracts, depending on the situation. For example, you’ll tolerate strangers inches away, even leaning against you, if you’re crowded into a subway. But if you’re gathering berries with your two young children in a vacant field, and some comic-book mobster in a trench coat and fedora makes a beeline straight for you and stops 20 feet off, you feel crowded and nervous. If he stares at you incessantly and continues to inch closer, the threat level spikes through the roof.
You’ve now reached the threshold for the two classic biological responses to a threat: fight or flee. If you’re scared enough by the stranger, you retreat — perhaps take a few steps back, walk away, or launch into an all-out, panic-stricken run, dragging your squalling kids along. In biological terms, you’ve been displaced. It’s going to cost you time and energy, and so much for the pie you hoped to eat. Your kids are going to be shaken up, maybe hurt. Option two: you decide you can’t outrun this guy, or think you could kick his heinie, so you make threatening comments and gestures, and maybe come out swinging. Or simply stand your ground, gather your kids close, pretend to ignore the weirdo as you continue to pick, and see what happens next.
That same basic scenario applies to most living creatures in Alaska. Each individual needs to find food and water, safe areas for resting and shelter, and suitable mates, as well as places to raise young. All wildlife is engaged in a dynamic, life-or-death dance to fill these basic needs. At the same time, each creature monitors the envelope between itself and other life forms, dangerous or otherwise. These animals may be of the same or different species; they may be direct competitors or threats to safety; they may be potential meals; or creatures that can be ignored. Of course, prey animals like caribou, deer, or ptarmigan possess hair-trigger flee responses, but the exact size of an individual’s envelope can vary hugely. A half-mile may be too close to a wolf in one situation, and 50 feet may feel safe in another. Apex predators like big male brown bears or orcas, on the other hand, aren’t likely to flee from much, because they don’t have to.
The exact reaction all depends on time of year, individual personalities, age, social status of the animals involved, and so on. A brown bear feeding along a salmon stream may tolerate other bears just feet away. Two months later, when the bruins have spread out and lost their generalized tolerance, any bear within a hundred yards of that same animal may be too close for comfort. Whatever the case, every wild creature, from bark beetle to bull walrus, possesses that elastic sense of personal space, and will respond somehow to its invasion. Most bear maulings or moose stompings, widely interpreted as unprovoked aggression and proof of how dangerous wild animals can be, are in fact defensive responses to an intrusion into the creature’s envelope. The animal saw not Uncle Bill, but that mobster with a bulge in his coat, and acted accordingly. (Predatory attacks, extremely rare, are an obvious exception).
In between the extremes of fight or flee lie varying degrees of tolerance, aggression, and submission, all of which are signaled through a variety of species-specific behaviors. Intense staring, jaw-popping, pawing and stamping, hackle-raising, head-lowering, snorting or huffing, and antler-swinging are obvious signs of agitation. Musk oxen may butt heads or thrash willows when crowded by human viewers or approached by predators, in a display of displaced aggression. Yawning, especially among foxes, bears, and wolves, signals low-to-medium levels of stress. Ignoring an intruder or turning sideways to it, to display size (common responses among bears to each other, and often towards people) signals a desire to avoid conflict. A bear that sits down when approached and avoids prolonged eye contact is signaling his lower social status to a more dominant animal.
And without doubt, the most dominant animal out there is us. Even the charismatic megafauna we crave--humpback whales, grizzlies, wolves, polar bears, moose, you name it--will nearly always retreat from advancing people, even when they clearly have the upper hand. Sometimes the movement’s sudden, sometimes gradual. But almost any animal, if crowded enough by humans, will leave. Those that don’t run are usually neutrally habituated; that is, they have a learned tolerance for non-threatening human proximity. Wildlife in well-managed viewing areas, such as McNeil River, Pack Creek, or Denali National Park, tends to exemplify this unique condition. Animals that have never encountered people in a negative context before may also exhibit fearless, usually neutral behavior. So will exceptional individuals, who apparently have the personalities of WalMart greeters.
One thing to remember about any wildlife hotspot: there are reasons so many animals are there. These are usually places vital to survival, and displacing wildlife costs them that valuable energy and feeding time. The salmon run or the ripe berries may only last a week or two, and winter’s coming. A single person, a bit too intent ongetting close, can disrupt and displace dozens, or even hundreds, of creatures (I was thinking of caribou or birds in that last case). Consider the effect of daily, uncontrolled human use in such a place, overlapping precisely with the periods of peak animal use. There’s a reason for those regulations after all.
We can’t always prevent displacement. Think of the songbirds, squirrels, and so on we send packing on even a casual hike. The trick is to minimize our impact when we can. When viewing or photographing wildlife, imagine yourself through their eyes, noses, and ears, and act accordingly. Moving slowly and quietly, keeping a low profile, and avoiding a head-on approach will help send the right message. Long, frequent pauses, without intense staring, allow animals to settle in and accept human presence. Let the wildlife come to you--or not, as luck may have it. Be attuned to signs of animal stress. Be prepared to back off and to let animals do the same. Even if you’re experienced, a recommended, local guide who knows the lay of the land, and often the individual animals, is worth the cost. Remember, it’s all about the envelope, and what’s inside it — including us.
Writer Nick Jans is a longtime contributing editor for Alaska Magazine and author of nine books. His most recent essay collection, The Glacier Wolf, features a number of Alaska animal-rescue stories and thoughtful essays on wildlife. It's available from nickjans.com