On Monday, EV6 and I stood peering into a display case of taxidermied animals. Mammals, mostly. They ranged in size from a tiny stoat to a massive antlered deer.
These animals had been introduced to New Zealand from afar. Some were brought here as game. Others were stowaways or escaped domestic companions. Many of them shared the same fate: overabundance that had to be put in check by rigorous extermination processes.
It’s not that they all bred as swiftly as rabbits. It also that there is no natural predator for these animals in New Zealand, a land mass whose only true native mammal is the bat. The bats could conveniently fly here, along with birds, which are plentiful. (There are also a handful of lizards, which presumably evolved from some other thing entirely.)
EV6 reminds me of this every time we visit Zealandia, a wildlife sanctuary near town. It is surrounded by miles of fence that extends down under the ground to protect the birds inside from burrowing predators and from a scooped top to prevent climbing animals from scaling it.
I reminded myself of this as I faced a shadowy trail just a few blocks from our house. It went from street level off-roading to a dense brush that left me humming tunes from Into The Woods just a minute later. As I navigated the steep decline, I considered how in Pennsylvania I would be wary of such a wooded area, concerned it might contain foxes, wolves, or bears herded there by development on all sides.
Or muggers. We have plenty of those in Pennsylvania, too.
As I checked my anxiety and set foot into the trail, I thought about recommending it to E, who might also enjoy the walk through nature. Then I chastised myself. I might have crossed off all my concerns with predators both human and otherwise, but a woman can’t ever do that in a place where there are also men present. The trail was close confines – you couldn’t even pass another person without brushing against them. Even without reports of a spate of rapes along an isolated trail, any man could initiate an assault.
I have that same mistrust of men, but not that same fear. In my younger years of being readily misgendered due to my willowy figure and long hair I endured catcalls and sexual assaults on the bus. Still later, I’ve winced past men yelling from their cars that I ought to get the switch out of my walk or stop wearing jeans so tight or they would beat it out of me.
Rightfully or not, in New Zealand I wasn’t concerned. I’m not still too afraid of those encounters to jog down a relatively isolated trail where I might meet one or two men. Yet, I still tense up when I pass by any assembled group of masculine-presenting men. There’s a reason I won’t play any sports or watch them in a bar. I’d never be able to turn off my anxiety.
It’s not just the actual presence of a predator that stops you from doing things. It’s the credible threat of being their prey.
I couldn’t help but reflect on how that relates to the current spate of reports of sexual harassment and assault across a wide array of professions, but focused in the media and politics. For every victim of assault, I wonder how many more were prevented by the culture from reaching the natural apex of their career, and how many beyond that simply never started.
I marvel at how much our culture has been shaped by the entertainment and law emerging from a population of men so disproportionately packed with predators. Around the world, predators are literally shaping the way we think about and interact with the world.
In New Zealand they do anything they can to reduce the alien animal populations that pose a threat to native flora and fauna. To a bird, it’s the only home they’ve known, and many have evolved past having natural defense mechanisms. Some don’t even fly! Why should they bother on an island where nothing roams the land to threaten them.
To a cat or a stoat, it’s an island full of prey. To a bulky red deer, there is nothing to threaten them. New Zealand builds fences to keep these animals out and has special hunting seasons to thin them out.
I continued on my way through the winding trail. It intermittently gave me breathtaking views of the harbor from a perch on the cliffs high above the highway. At its terminus, it deposited me so far below the elevation of our house that I could barely clamber back up the paved streets to return, let alone reverse and trace my path back up the trail.
I’d be in no shape to confront a fox, a wolf, or a bear, and probably not a mugger, either. I could barely put one foot in front of the other.
The journey was challenging enough without any predators along the way.