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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Habituation, Taming, Social Dominance Assertions, and “Freedom of the Woods”


Habituation of wildlife, deliberate or accidental, can be a useful tool in research, a profitable tourist attraction, a serious nuisance, and even a mortal danger. It is the first stage of an animal gaining familiarity with humans and is always a state of unconsummated interest by the animal in us. The next stage following habituation, taming, is always initiated by a habituated animal, which thereby continues gaining information about us. In some carnivores this may be an attack to test for edibility. Even tame animals may continue to explore humans by addressing us in their species-specific sign language as if we were social companions of their own species. In my work with free-living but tame bighorn sheep, females began to treat me as a super-female, while males addressed me with dominance displays and attacked me. Since the sign language of different species of mammals may be unintelligible to us, it has led to “unpredictable” fatal attacks in zoological gardens and national parks. In reality, species that are testing us for dominance will signal the intention to attack redundantly and long before it happens. Inability to read the body language, coupled with ignorance of a species’ biology can have fatal consequences. Exemplary is a large and rather safe tourist industry that has developed around habituated and tame bears in North America, while some persons have lived with tamed black and grizzly bears for decades. Negative conditioning to habitat can lead to deliberate or inadvertent population crashes. The survival of large predators may depend on systematic conditioning to avoid humans. Cannibalism among predators involves larger stalking smaller, with predators made wary of being stalked. It is proposed that by targeting stimuli to which large carnivores cannot habituate, such as the sounds of stalking or the bold behavior of armed humans, they can be systematically conditioned to avoid humans. Inefficient and enduring hunting does that, generating a “Freedom of the Woods” – that is, safety for all outdoor users.

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