My favorite advertisement during this year’s Super Bowl game featured wildlife … go figure.
Maybe you saw it: first, a driver brakes to avoid hitting a beaver crossing the road; later, the beaver drops a tree right in front of the same driver’s car to stop him from speeding into a flooded river.
I’m not sure what the product was. What lingered for me was the relationship between man and buck-toothed rodent. When the driver realizes the beaver has saved his life, everyone at the Super Bowl party I attended sighed “awwwww.”
Wouldn’t it be nice if our relationships with wild animals were like that? They aren’t, of course. Few wild animals willingly share space with humans. When I’m in the field, researching an article about wildlife, I respect the buffer space that allows an animal to behave normally despite my gaze. Later, when I’m looking for words to describe the wildlife or my experience, I’m always mindful not to personify them — not to give human thoughts or motivations or feelings to wild creatures. The focus stays on observable facts and behaviors.
So how should I tell my own “beaver karma” story? The first time I went scuba diving in the ocean, off a beach in Monterey Bay, my buddy and I were joined by a pod of seals. Swimming behind, they grabbed our fins with their teeth to stop us, then circled around. One bold seal softly wrapped his mouth around my buddy’s dive glove and then his hood. It didn’t seem to be begging for food, and it wasn’t biting, just interacting — breaking the barrier that usually separates “them” (the wild animals) from “us” (the tame humans). Finally, that same seal took my glove gently in its mouth, then transferred my hand to its front flippers. I almost pulled away, to respect the wild seal’s buffer zone. But I didn’t, and the seal eased back on the sandy sea floor, still pulling my hand. Even I could see the seal was asking for a scratch — which I delivered with a big grin on my face.
Scientifically speaking, the seal was probably just exhibiting a behavior previous divers had trained it to display. And yet I could never write about the experience solely in those terms. When choosing my words, I would stay with what I know and make it clear when I’m guessing (“It didn’t seem to be begging for food” is different from “It wanted to play”). But I would also explore my own response, describing how it felt to be almost forced to touch a wild animal — by the animal itself.
By sticking to the animal’s observed behavior and my observed response, I can stay safely in the realm of fact while still conveying emotion. The Super Bowl commercial ends with the beaver tapping its chest with its fist and pointing at the human, who returns the gesture. That’s personification. It’s what got us to say, “awwww.” In writing about my seal encounter, even if I don’t pretend the seal “smiled” at me or tried to communicate that it loved me, I can still find words to convey the simple awe I felt as the seal crossed the usually uncrossable gap between wild animals and people. As a person who writes about wildlife, conveying that feeling is the whole point.