Many writers have observed that wild, naturally-behaving predators and their prey seem to communicate with each other at some level — indeed, that there is some sort of tacit agreement about who will eat whom, and when. Too, there are observations about how that respectful relationship falls apart when domesticated animals have lost what Barry Lopez calls the “conversation of death.” Dogs attack wildlife wantonly; wild predators randomly kill stock and flocks.

What of the human predator-prey relationship? At some point, a predator is a predator. Confronted by a dangerous person, how many humans retain that conversation of death?

My some time ago, ongoing, and current, conversations with Deborah Essman always stir the mind. Her emails and current thoughts often touch on her sense of the predator-prey relationship of lions and humans.

“I’ve been thinking about body-language. ‘Calories in, calories out.’ The old adage about the sick, diseased, and crippled seems sensible, since so many attacks have been on children. Attacks have also been on joggers — hmmm... Running deer-like through cougar country can’t be too smart.

“I have yet to kill a cougar. Still, I have seen about a dozen lions in the wild, and the most exciting hunt of my life involved the chase Bill and I had (one) winter. To be tracking behind a big cat on tracks so hot they were smoking is beyond belief. I got a quick glance of him looking down at Bill, in the brush 100 yards below. Watching that cougar thrashing his tail back and forth in anger was indescribable. I’ll never forget running behind him into a brushy draw, certain that we would soon to be face to face. Even though I’d been outrun, I was not disappointed (well maybe a little).

“This morning looked perfect, it was and had been snowing. No fresh tracks. Coming out, we saw three bald eagles, ravens and black-billed magpies across the creek. We high-tailed it over and found a cougar-killed cow elk. The old tracks around it were not big — female or young tom, maybe 120 or less. Impressive that an animal that size can take such prey!

“The walk gave me a chance to think more about my previous comments. I say I’m not afraid to hunt cougars alone, but I have anxious moments — like when I move into a thick brushy draw and hear a stick snap behind me. That quickening of pulse and heightening of senses has to be a combination of fear and excitement. The tracks today were fun to look at, so distinctively roundish. A coyote track reminds me of our border collie’s prints — high strung and restless. A cougar to me sort of swaggers — that’s the best adjective. It is a predator, after all.”

Somewhere in those just-after-the-turn-of-the-Century conversations, long-time Colorado friend Dave Gershen joined our email exchange. Dave and his Colorado men’s group read the first two weeks of this early inquiry. “It,” as Dave said, “provoked some profound and interesting discussion.” Dave’s questions are those we continue to ponder: How and what do we teach young people about avoiding “prey/victim vibes?”

Deborah’s response was, and still is, “I believe that carrying myself like a predator is a clear signal that I am not to be trifled with. Police records have shown that many victims of violent crime share a profile of submissive, timid body language. The worst mistake anyone can make is not to be aware of their surroundings — in a big city or in the wild. I’ve never been afraid to hunt alone, but I always look ahead, behind and above.”

I strongly agree with this “awareness” business. Among many things, I taught my kids, and their friends, two very specific things: pay attention to things around you; and walk assertively, as if you have a purpose. In that context, I said, “Never be afraid to let someone know you see them, but don’t stare aggressively. Remember the fine line here: aggression invites aggression; assertiveness invites respect.”

“By the way, Jim,” Deborah added toward the end of our many conversations, “when I worked in Seattle, I was an uniformed Wildlife Agent. I had reports of people keeping short salmon along the waterfront, so I worked ‘plain-clothes’ one night. About 2 a.m., I casually approached a couple fishermen. Before I even said hello, they whipped out their licenses. Stunned, I asked how they knew I was an agent. One replied that I walked like a ‘woman with a purpose.’ Then, he added, they only saw one other type of woman that time of night and I surely didn’t look like one of them. A compliment? I’m still not sure…Yours, Deborah K. Essman.”

Predator-prey relationships are found across all life forms. It is incumbent upon us, I suggest, to understand those within which we find ourselves.

Jim Huckabay is retired from the Department of Geography at Central. His “WILD WINDS and Other Tales of Growing Up in the Outdoor West” is available online and at bookstores. Contact Jim and join in discussions at www.insidetheoutdoors.com.

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