Have you ever been attacked by an animal?
I have never been “attacked,” by an animal but I have had my share of small injuries such as a bite from a rescued parrot, deep scratches from a hungry anteater, and a chunk of haired pulled out by a macaque. When I rescue, observe, or handle an animal, I spend a lot of time preparing for the experience and I practice good common-sense and judgment in order to prevent accidents.
Knowing what to do comes from a combination of formal education, hands-on training, and experience from zoos, eco-tourism, rescue-missions, live shows, media appearances, and hosting wildlife shows.
If it’s a rescue, we avoid contact as much as possible as an injured animal is in distress and in defense-mode. If you see me in a live animal show or on TV with an animal ambassador, you will notice that I rarely handle animals; I do this because it’s a fast-paced environment full of people, noises, lights, and movement and although animals have been trained for this important role, I prefer them being handled by their caretakers. Although I know most of the animal ambassadors I work with, it doesn’t mean they “know,” me. If I need to handle them, there is a protocol I follow with the caretakers and everyone involved before the interaction.
For example, before I filmed with a cobra, I studied cobras, specifically monocled cobra’s, anatomy, physiology, evolution, and behavior. Behavior is very complex and can vary immensely with each individual within a species so I considered the animal’s age, sex, size, temperature, time of year, typical defensive behavior. It’s important to also consider the consequences and treatment of what will happen if the interaction goes badly. Herpetologist, Terry Phillips then shares the specific snake’s life history and medical history so I know of any injuries and or incidents that have occurred which will alter typical behavior. Terry then shows me how the snake moves; Is she fast? What makes her hood up? Why makes her strike? How far can she strike from a stand-still? what makes her feel safe? etc. He shows me all of her behaviors before I come close and only then does Terry invite me closer with him always at my side observing every twitch of her muscles.
Why is this important? Conservationists must have close encounters with some species in order to learn more about why they behave the way they do and how they survive so that we may take that knowledge to do what we can to assist in their survival.
How did I know the snake was a female? Sexing a snake and even a bird is difficult if the species isn’t sexually dimorphic (sexually different looking). Sometimes you can’t tell for many months after birth because young animals go through phases of growth or the sex organs have not developed yet. Once they are of age, you must “dig,” a little deeper to discover your answer; this is best left to vets and animal care specialists…trust me.