Fear of Nature Has Lots of Company

“Refuge Rangers Fight Myths about Creepy Crawlies and Other Wildlife.”

It’s not just snakes. Other wild creatures inspire exaggerated fears, too: bats; spiders; birds; fish – yes, fish.

In the course of greeting tens of thousands of visitors a year, rangers on national wildlife refuges bump up against many such bugbears. They know which natural–world denizens invariably make some people flinch or go ewww.

One thing they’ve noticed: Whether it’s because today’s visitors tend to live more indoor lives than past generations or watch too many TV survival shows, fears of nature are flourishing — in all ages.

“We’re seeing more kids sheltered and afraid,” says Ashley Inslee, a biologist at Bosque del Apache Refuge in New Mexico. “Even college kids interested in conservation haven’t been out hunting, fishing, hiking. They’ve seen TV shows or National Geographic and think being outdoors is cool, but it can be uncomfortable at first.”

Some fears – sparked by active imaginations or fuzzy senses of geography – are fairly easy to dispel. Like worries about encountering zebras or lions at Tualatin River Refuge near Portland, Oregon, (neither are found there) or wolves and alligators at Great Swamp Refuge in New Jersey (where neither roam).

“Children are always nervous about alligators in the swamp,” says Dave Sagan, visitor services specialist at Great Swamp Refuge. “Once they find out that we do not have them this far north and I tell them there are no venomous snakes and that the scariest thing on the refuge is a plant with three leaves (poison ivy), many fears seem to go away.”

Different tactics are called for at Florida’s J.N. “Ding” Darling Refuge, where gators are star attractions. “There should be a natural fear we have of them, and they of us; it’s a good thing to be fearful of a large predator like an alligator,” says supervisory refuge ranger Toni Westland. But she puts visitors’ fears in perspective. “We tell them we’re not going to have alligators jumping out of bushes. It’s safe. But it’s only safe because we respect wild animals and don’t feed them.”

Pop culture and myth sustain many nature fears. Only in movies do bats drink human blood or fly in your face. Still, Sagan says, “inevitably, in every group, there’s someone who says, ‘Aaahh, bats. They’re gonna land in my hair.’ I explain, ‘No, they’re swooping down to eat insects. They can carry rabies, yeah, but we don’t handle bats….If you see a bat, you’re really lucky, because there are so few of them. One bat can eat 5,0000 mosquitoes a night.’ ”

Fear of nature is not a kids-only phenomenon. “The older they are, the harder it is,” says Sagan. “I have had the most trouble with adult chaperones.”

“Sometimes teachers are the most nervous,” agrees Laurel Harrison, a visitor services staffer at Patuxent Research Refuge outside Washington, D.C., “especially when we’re doing a program where we have a snake. The teacher will be cowering in the back of the room, and after all the kids touch the snake, they come forward and say, ‘Okay, okay. I’m going to do this.’”

Calming Fears

Getting visitors to reweigh perceived threats is an art.

Once, while Jenna Mendenhall was leading two dozen visitors on a tour of Tualatin River Refuge, a coyote started howling. “Immediately, the whole group just came around me,” recalls the Friends conservation lead coordinator. “They were scared and wanted to go back to the visitor center. I had everybody howl back. I told them, ‘The coyotes are across the river. We are a very large group of people. They’re not coming near us.’ As we kept walking, people became more comfortable, slowing down instead of standing right next to me.”

Some visitors want to beat back old fears. Mary Stumpp signed on this winter as a volunteer at crane-filled Bosque del Apache Refuge—an odd choice for someone with a lifelong fear of birds. Her task: using a tractor to mow corn for feeding sandhill cranes. Slowly, she grew accustomed to seeing flocks overhead. Writes Stumpp, “I began to see the cranes not as a threat but as beautiful creatures. To my surprise, I began to care about them…”

But only from a distance. Then she watched a duck banding exercise. Says Inslee, “She was apprehensive at first. I held a duck. I let it hold my finger in its bill, and showed her it didn’t hurt. She got to the point where she was banding them. She was really proud of herself. In the end, she was calling herself ‘the duck whisperer.’”

To help anxious visitors, refuge staffers share some proven tactics.

Admit to fears of their own. Visitors may be surprised to hear refuge staffers aren’t all fearless. Snakes and spiders don’t faze Mendenhall, at Tualatin River Refuge. “I actually don’t care for raccoons,” she says. “I’m trying to learn more about them.” Bosque del Apache Refuge’s deputy manager Aaron Mize owns up to a fear of heights, snakes and — he admits this is a weird one—“bottom-feeding fish: suckers and carp with their nasty little mouths. There’s a reason I’m not a fisheries biologist.”

Find out what they know. At Patuxent Refuge, Harrison meets students on familiar turf before a refuge visit. She throws them softball questions: “Do you spend any time outside? What’s your favorite animal?” Then she moves to the hard stuff: “Are there any animals you’re worried about?” She invites students to confide fears in writing “so they don’t have to worry about being embarrassed in front of their classmates.”

Don’t dissemble. To a child nervous about snakes, Harrison offers, ‘Just so you know, there are snakes at Patuxent, but I almost never get to see any. That’s because they’re shy, and they can feel the ground tremble, and they go and hide when they hear people coming.”

Never feed a wild animal. Says Westland, “If fed, they lose their fear of humans, so we do a ton of education about not feeding alligators.” Also ill-advised: getting too close, crouching at the water’s edge (you look smaller), turning your back or challenging a basking gator for rights to a path. Even if you were there first, go around the gator. Says Westland, “People joke, just as they do with bears, ‘You just have to run faster than person with you.’ You shouldn’t be running at all.”

Contain nervous adults. Says Sagan, “I allow the adults to be nervous if they like but not to show it in front of the kids so they do not develop the same fear for no reason.”

Let kids adjust at their own pace. In classroom demos, Harrison lets kids decide if they want to touch a live frog or snake. “I have sometimes had parents take a child’s hand and say, ‘Touch it, touch it.’ And I have to say, ‘Remember, we want to empower kids to say ‘no.’ So when they say it, we have to respect it.’”

Appoint a helper. At Assabet Refuge near Boston, visitor services manager Kizette OrtizVanger watched an intern calm an anxious young visitor by asking, “’Would you like to be my assistant for the day?’ The kid said, ‘Yeah.’ The intern would say, ‘Do you know what this is?’ or ‘Can you hold this for me?’ He was being more supportive of the kid without singling him out.”

Show enthusiasm. “Students pick up on that; they see that you’re not afraid,” says Sagan at Great Swamp. “We take kids on a boardwalk above the swamp. I tell them they’re going to see cool things like spotted salamanders and turtles. Someone will say, ‘Oh gross.’ And I say, ‘No, they’re so cool. Wait til you see one.’ ”

Some tips for parents to reduce kids’ nature fears

1. Encourage your kids to play outdoors – whether under your supervision or in a nature club. Says Dave Sagan, “That’s the biggest thing: exposure to nature. Let them get their hands dirty. Kids are told to be scared of so many things nowadays. …When they experience nature on their own, they say, ‘That was neat. That wasn’t scary.’”

2. Relate unfamiliar things to stuff kids already know. That’s what Laurel Harrison does at Patuxent Refuge when she invites kids to touch, say, a black rat snake. “If you say, ‘It feels kind of like a basketball,’ then they want to touch it to see if it’s true. If you say a snake egg feels like a stale marshmallow, then they’ll touch it. If I want them to touch the side of a toad filled up with air, I might say, ‘I hear if you feel it on its side, it feels a little like a water balloon.’ They’ll touch it and say, ‘That’s right. It does.’”

3. Replace myth with fact. Says Jenna Mendenhall: “My son is afraid of ants. I help him understand it’s okay to be afraid. Once you learn more, hopefully you won’t be as afraid. Education is the main way to get over your fear.”

4. Don’t overreact. You may be “scared to death of snakes,” allows Mendenhall. Try not to transmit that fear to your kids.


CAPTION: Young visitors recoil from a snake held by a refuge biologist at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. Credit: Andrea Brophy/USFWS

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