Basic Wildlife Etiquette (from ex-tour guides)

As the world’s urban migration continues, more and more wildlife is pushed out of its natural habitat. Without going into the serious scientifically-based consequences of our actions on the environment, which are most probably going to be better summarised elsewhere on the internet, we will focus on something a little more straightforward than a global ecosystem – Wildlife. More specifically, wild animals.

Our daily interactions with wild animals, were exactly that; daily. But as we no longer need to gather our own food and it doesn’t take years to cross countries, we have begun short-cutting a large part of our journey. The result: we no longer really know how to interact or connect with nature and its wildlife. It will be a sad day, when we no longer know how to empathise with them.

In hopes of never reaching such a stage in human existence, the following mini-essay will try and shed some light on how to interact with some common animals in Australia. Hopefully it will allow some to create bonds with wildlife, see them through a new set of lenses, and most importantly – coexist. This might sound hippie to you but you’d be surprised how difficult some people find it. Even with something as simple as that frog in your garden.

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No, the frog in the garden was not meant as a metaphor.

Before going to Australia, every single one of your friends and colleagues will tell you to watch out for all the millions of things that are out to kill you. There’s countless funny YouTube songs and lists all over the internet showcasing Australian wildlife’s sheer capabilities. Now I’m not asking you to ignore them all but rather, to read them with a little more perspective.

Realise that most animals have personalities and characters – sometimes, similar to humans. Some are friendlier, some less so. Some have playful personalities, some are grumpy. Some are extremely anxious and some will want cuddles the second they see you. This is often largely based on their own experiences through life. If they’ve had lots of bad experiences with humans they will be shier or more aggressive; depending on the context. If they’ve had lots of great interactions with people, then they might be much more confident and sometimes even demand and directly request some form of attention. So no, not all snakes are bad, not all sharks want to eat you for breakfast, and not all koalas are nice and friendly fluff-balls.

So what do you really need to look out for?

There are truly only four ‘monsters’ you need to worry about when you’re in Australia:

  1. Great Whites
  2. Salt-Water Crocodiles
  3. Waves & Tides
  4. The Sun

Obviously I’m not telling you to go swim with an unknown jelly fish, poke a red-back spider, or piss off a rugby player but most other situations can be dissolved with a little common sense, whilst the above four – a little less so. Great white sharks and saltwater crocodiles are two gigantic animals who will eat just about anything. They simply see everything as prey. So how do we mitigate that? Well stay clear of croc infested waters and pay attention to great white sightings.

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Photo Credit – Peter Wandmaker

Waves and tides are often underestimated by swimmers and surfers alike so asking the locals is typically a good way to not get swept away when exploring new beaches. There is also an app called “Beachsafe”.

Finally, wear that sun cream. In Europe you can sometimes go up to an hour without suncream as the sun is really not that strong, however, in northern Queensland, sun or rain, winter or summer, you can get sunburnt within 15 minutes. Skin cancer is never much further away from a solid burn. Wear suncream.

So now that we’ve gotten the big scary things that are out to kill you out of the way, here are some great things to remember when you’re interacting with Australian mammals and Birds.

Be patient, the animal might have different thoughts about interacting with a stranger from a different species. You need to work hard to make the animal think you’re not a threat. Begin by not looking straight at them. Predators do that when they lock onto a prey and most prey are aware of that. If that still doesn’t help, turn your back, it will put them at ease provided the animal is still inquisitive. After enough time, and once you’ve gained enough trust to be facing each other, it helps to stay low or even sit down. We are pretty big things for a wallaby, a kangaroo, or a magpie.

Be extremely careful with your hands. A long history of hunting and being hunted has taught animals that limbs are dangerous. Do not point at the animal or put your hands behind their head until you’ve built enough trust. If you do, they might suddenly feel surrounded and go into survival mode, which might not be so much fun. Similarly – try to be still and not make any sudden noises or movements.

It also helps to have something that they want from you. DO NOT FEED THEM HUMAN FOOD. I cannot stress this enough. We often pump our bodies with chemicals such as food concentrates, acids, and we always love that extra bit of sugar.  Do not force the animal to follow suit. Your body has had years of adaptation, these animals haven’t had that luxury. Needless to say, many human foods are actually not good for us either…

If you still intend to feed them, then it is your responsibility to research the animal beforehand. Find out what they eat and bring it with you. Be very careful not to overfeed them either, just give them a little. Typically one or two fistfuls (of seeds for instance) will be plenty for most Australian interactions.

Whilst you do this, you need to be careful that you do not create a sense of habit. The animals are wild and you want them to continue relying on their instincts – not on you. If you disregard this, you better be prepared to be around for the rest of its life.

Be extremely careful of their sensitive areas. Especially where they breathe and eat from. For example, don’t stroke a dolphin’s head. Your hand might interfere with their breathing/blow-hole. They do love their neck and belly scratches though. Be careful where you are too – it is illegal to touch dolphins in most of Australia.

Tip: suncream irritates dolphins’ eyes and skin. Wait at least 15 minutes before entering the water.

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Your fingers are also a source of oily substances. For birds, it becomes more difficult to fly if we have left our residue on their wings – so if you do have a bird or intend to interact with a wild one, do so with extreme care and with use the back of your hand.

Never be aggressive unless your safety is truly being threatened. Most animals (in Australia) are not out to kill you. In fact, they’re either scared of you, threatened by you, or see you as a nuisance (and waste of their venom). By attacking them, you are forcing them to engage in their most primordial instinct: that of survival. So they don’t care if you’re 4x their size, they will engage. If on the other hand you leave them space, showcase no intention of harming them, and use body language to express that, you will often find yourself unharmed (whilst continuously exercising some common sense of course).

Never threaten a mother. The mother of a newborn will fight to the death without second thought to protect her youngling – it’s beautiful how most species align with each other in this way. These animals are on extra high alert and always require much more time and patience to build trust.

Please do not leave any of your trash lying around. A lot of animals are affected by it. Whether it is processed foods or just plastics, try to always have a little trash bag around and always take it home – or more simply, go with just an apple, water, and a camera! When you head to bed be sure to also keep all your stuff within your four walls. Otherwise, tie it high up so it can’t be reached by dingos or wallabies (this won’t cut it if your’e dealing with possums). If you leave it underneath a table or outside – be prepared for nightly visitors.

Tip: mice like human trash, and snakes like mice, so…

We all want to take lovely photos of the wildlife to take home, right? When you do that, try to imagine you’re taking a photo of a stranger. Don’t stick the camera in their faces. Let them be inquisitive. Let them come to you.

Tip: it helps to put a little scent on your camera lens or a very little piece of ‘animal-specific’ food; that will get them to come your way.

IMG_8832.jpgBe patient, slow, and gauge the behaviour of the animal. Try to read and understand its body language as if it was just another person going about their day. Be respectful and mindful of what it is doing (don’t throw things down a bull ant mound, don’t destroy a bird’s nest for instance).

Tip: sometimes it helps to put your camera on video nearby the animal, leave it behind, and just give the it some space to do its natural thing.

If you are at home or in a stable place – use time and consecution to your advantage. Build relationships with the animal and create little habits, these really help trust to form. You will notice they might even teach their offspring to trust you too! Just beware of not creating dependency once again. Some of ideas like letting your grass grow a bit longer, building owl boxes up in the trees, or even simple acts like leaving a bowl of water outside when you notice a really hot day will go a long way! Animals don’t have running water and don’t forget the 43-53°C heatwaves hit them hard too.

Finally, be as patient as you can. You are in their home, their environment, and the more time you give them to acclimatise to your presence in it, the more time you spend watching and giving non-threatening body language, the more you will realise an appreciation for the small nuances in character between different animals of that same observed species. It may take an hour, a day, a week, or a month. But these experiences enhance us as humans, they allow coexistence with nature, and develop an empathy and understanding that (I believe) are at the core of our humanity. 

…but but but snakes, spiders, stonefish, sting rays and jellyfish? As stated at the beginning, do not disregard the signs of the animals that can kill you. Just know that most of them won’t and really don’t want to.

To put things in perspective, 80% of registered snake bites happen to males. What a surprise. Approximately 50% of which, involve alcohol (thanks to Raptor Domain for these numbers). Which, not only confirms my thoughts about Aussie’s being unafraid of the wild but it leads me to believe that they probably went after the snake.

Do Not. Chase. The *insert swear word* snake.

Most other snake bites occur by accident; when we don’t see them and step on them or get close to their young. So watch your step! You can further help yourself by learning what to do if you do indeed get bit by a snake. In Australia, 97% of snake bites are non-deadly when they have been previously treated with the appropriate first aid.

If you do decide to take things into your own hands (and not call a snake catcher), be prepared for a series of well defensible pissed off snakes. From tiger snakes to taipans, you don’t want to mess with these Australian reptiles.

PS: Remember; snakes react to vibrations and have terrible sight. Often it’s best if you just stand still – you might just get out of the situation unbitten. (Keep in mind, that once you’ve angered the snake, it becomes that much more difficult for the snake catcher to capture it once you failed to do so).

And all that stuff that really wants to kill you in the water? Since 1883 only 69 people have died from a boxed jellyfish. Less than three people have died from a stone fish in the last 100 years. Spiders? Red-back spiders have killed one person in the last 39 years. Must I keep going?

Be careful but don’t let that stop you: keep in mind that Australian hospitals are usually highly equipped to deal with these situations.

To quickly reiterate: To engage with wildlife do your best to be respectful and non-threatening, read the animal’s behaviour, and research. If you follow these three simple things and keep a sharp eye out for warnings, you will begin a little journey of creating a beautiful relationship utilising nothing but gestures. You will begin seeing individuals emerge amongst animal species, noting slight differences not only through scars and coloration but through behaviour and traits. You’ve now opened the doors to a new innocent world of wonder, and it truly only begins with you.

There is pleasure in the pathless woods,

There is rapture on the lonely shore,

There is society, where none intrudes,

By the deep sea, and music in its roar,

I love not man the less, but Nature more…

 – Lord Byron

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