Monday, December 4, 2017

Prey Eyes

There's a neat little trick in the environmental-education world to teach kids about one of the adaptive differences between predator and prey species.  Predators, broadly speaking, will have eyes that face forward, giving them a large area of overlap in the field of vision of each eye (aka "binocular vision") and, therefore, better depth perception.  Prey species, on the other hand, tend to have eyes located more laterally, which sacrifices binocular vision for greater peripheral vision--which is probably a good trade if your life depends on your ability to see an attacker in time to flee. 

To demonstrate this to kids, form "OK signs" with both of your hands, then put the circles formed by thumb and forefinger up to your eyes.  Your palms will force you to look straight ahead.  This is "Predator Vision."  Now take your hands down and cross them, and place the right OK sign over the left eye and vice-versa.  Now your vision is directed outward to either side--"Prey Vision."  Of course, this doesn't actually increase your peripheral vision, but it does focus your attention in the appropriate direction.

I think about this little mnemonic while I'm jogging. 
I'm on a trail off a dead end road, and the coyotes have started howling, easily one of the most primal sounds you're likely to hear in this corner of Suburbitopia.  At the sound of my feet crunching along the sides of the road, Desert cottontails flash their white puffs at me (another prey adaptation--a way of declaring, "I see you! No sense trying to ambush me!") and bound away.  I pose them no threat (#notallhumans) but as Wikipedia puts it, "Unfortunately for the cottontail, almost every local carnivore larger or faster than the lagomorph is its predator."  It's better for them to err on the side of caution, so I don't take it personally.

Prey species have a few broad types of survival strategies:
  • avoiding detection (hiding, camouflage, being active when your predator isn't)
  • employing safety in numbers (aggregating in flocks/herds/schools)
  • signaling that you're more trouble than you're worth (the risk of injury to the predator is too high or the calories earned/spent ratio is too low)
  • escape 
  • passive defense (spines, shells, foul odor/taste)
  • communal defense (mobbing or clustering)
  • active defense (biting, kicking, scratching)
The cottontails start with avoiding detection--they come out at dusk and dawn, blend into their surroundings, and freeze when scared.  Then they escalate to signaling with their eponymous posteriors, then flee by bounding away in a zig-zag pattern.  If cornered, they will attempt to actively defend themselves (though, I gather, not often successfully).

I get the bunnies' skittishness and preemptive flight.  It's dusk so I am wearing a light-up arm band (I am aware of my surroundings! No sense trying to ambush me!), I have one earbud out (I can hear you! No sense trying to ambush me!), and carrying my smart phone (I can call reinforcements! No sense trying to ambush me!) but I have forgotten my pepper spray (I am more trouble than I'm worth! No sense trying to ambush me!).  I text a friend a picture of the sunset, and he replies, "Jogging alone?"

"Yep." I say. "But I have my phone with me and one earbud out! #joggingwhilefemale".  And then I feel a little sick at my own joke.

"Do you have your pepper spray?" he replies.  Then, later, maybe after some more reflection or, say, watching the news, he qualifies: "You shouldn't be jogging alone."

I know it's motivated by concern, but I want to hurl my phone in frustration--but I CAN'T, because my phone is PART OF MY SECURITY SYSTEM.  The alternative, I want to know, is what, exactly?  By this reasoning, women shouldn't jog alone, but we also shouldn't attend college, and we certainly shouldn't work in Hollywood, tech, or the California legislature.  And squeezing a jog into my schedule as a single mom working full time outside of the house is already onerous--now I'm supposed to organize a Meet-Up for it, too?

It's an exercise that's been repeated so often it's become a cliché, but I want to know if my male friends can possibly have any sense for what it's like, the degree of thought and planning and vigilance that goes into a jog or a blind date or a trip to the ATM.

My high school-aged daughter asks me what I'm working on, and I explain the basic premise of this blog post--predator/prey dynamics as they apply to both wildlife and women--and she agrees. "The other day I asked a friend what he was up to, and he said WALKING TO TACO BELL!  And it was, like, 9:00 at night!"  She sighed.  "And I just thought about the list of things I have to go through just to go on a jog, that he totally doesn't understand."

I wince, thinking back to the instance a week earlier when she had texted me while I was at work to tell me that she was going on a jog.  "How far?" I had asked. "What's your route?" and "Be aware of your surroundings."  Then, the sinking, negligent feeling when I told her that the pepper spray was in my purse so she wouldn't be able to take it.  I hesitated before I sent each of those texts, weighing the relative merits of encouraging her to be aware versus the detriment of paranoia. Then I tracked her iPhone intermittently until she was home safe.

A therapist, years ago, told me that sometimes I exhibit "hypervigilance."  Hypervigilance is an excellent adaptation for perceiving threats, but it's exhausting and intensifies anxiety.  Again, the balancing act--how much vigilance is too much?  Every woman I know exhibits a far greater awareness of and planning around the daily circumstances of life than her male peers--not just those of use who are survivors of violence.  It strikes me how wasteful this preoccupation is, like beauty standards and bias and all the other nonsense that applies preferentially to women. 

I wonder how much more we could accomplish if we weren't constantly worrying about thinning eyelashes or balancing work and parenthood or, you know, rape.  I wonder what the world looks like when it's not viewed through prey eyes.

1 comment:

  1. Strengthen your active defense with a gun. The higher the percentage of women carrying concealed guns, the sharper the claws and the worse the bite perceived by the would be predators, who are largely males looking for vulnerable prey.

    Be a FORCE for women's safety. Learn how to carry a gun safely. Excellent training is available at minimal cost from men and women inspired to make the world a safer place for all women.