Herd Mentality

Posted on November 29, 2010


I like watching nature shows, especially the ones about exotic animals. But there always comes a moment when I have to leave the room. It’s when the predator goes on the hunt, and something is about to get eaten. The narration usually stops at this point, and we can hear chewing. How they get this footage, I have no idea. Wouldn’t it have been less work for the lion to chase the cameraman?

When the chewing sounds stop, I return from the hallway to see the baby animal, now motherless, struggling to get over its grief and return to the herd. I root for the baby, just as I rooted for its mother. But these animals always let me down. They panic, forgetting there’s strength in numbers. They scatter, running for their fool lives as though there were somewhere to hide, as though there weren’t a cheetah waiting on the next corner.

It wouldn’t be so bad if we were talking about unpleasant creatures. But these are always the nice animals, the kind you trust with your young children at the petting zoo. They’re the ones that can’t seem to handle success, and feel some primeval need to leave their paradise of fresh water and tall grass and butterflies and migrate hundreds of miles to a barren desert where there’s nothing to eat but rocks and the bones of their grandparents.

Take zebras, for example. Everyone likes zebras. What’s not to like? They’re basically horses with stripes so vivid they scream, “We’re zebras! Nobody looks like us! We even look good in black & white!”

Like all mammals, zebras have adapted to their environment. They live in groups and take care of their young. When a hyena approaches the herd, the adult zebras form a protective cluster with the little ones on the inside. They communicate with each other through a series of sounds. And each zebra has unique markings. While we may not be able to tell them apart, they can recognize each other, even though they all look like walking barcodes.

Zebras are intelligent.

But something happens to them when they get near a river. They lose their minds. Not right away, but eventually. They know there are crocodiles in that river. They sometimes wait for hours or even days before crossing, and that means they must be aware of the danger. And yet, they do cross. It’s as if, after all that deep contemplation, they just say to themselves, “Oh, what the heck. You only live once.” Inevitably, there’s a wild disturbance just below the surface, the zebra is pulled downward into the murky water, and I can only imagine what happens next because I’m running from the room at top speed.

Now compare this behavior with another animal, say a squirrel. Would a squirrel ever cross the river? Squirrels are too nervous to turn their heads. Squirrels freeze at the sound of a passing cloud. They have brains the size of a chickpea, yet they’re smart enough to stay out of harm’s way. But the zebra and its idiot next-door neighbor, the wildebeest, can’t seem to control their own self-destructive nature. It’s as though they wake up one day feeling like they’re food. This is true of all the herd animals — impala, gazelle, eland, antelope. All beautiful creatures, all mesmerized by the sight of moving water. They might as well be born with recipes tattooed on their butts.

What I can’t understand is, what’s so important on the other side of that river? It’s just more of the same grass and shrub that’s on this side. Is the short-term memory of these animals so feeble that they can’t remember what happened the last time the herd crossed over? And if it is, how do they manage to remember where they’re supposed to go, or that they’re supposed to go at all?

So the crocodiles sit back and wait, fifteen feet long with a bad attitude. They know they’re reptiles and that almost nobody can stand them. They see the zebra — popular, graceful, and stylish enough to inspire designs for bed sheets and pajamas and referee uniforms — and the crocodiles think, “We can’t compete with him on an emotional level. But we can eat him.” That’s the kind of morality that passes for the beauty of nature in many places. Which is why zebras have to start using their heads. The crocodile has the strongest bite of any animal on the planet. If the zebras haven’t figured this out for themselves, they can always ask the cameraman; he filmed a documentary on crocodiles just last month.

I know that nature does what it does, that predators are trying to survive just like the rest of us. And I realize that if there are too many zebras, there won’t be enough food and the entire herd will be weakened. But just once I’d like to sit down and watch one of these shows and see the prey pull out a surprise victory in the fourth quarter. I want the zebra to go over to the edge of the river, kick a rock or a stick into the water, and let the crocodile make a fool of himself chasing after it. Then I want the zebra to laugh himself silly, shaking his head as he walks back up the hill to tell the others. They get to migrate another day, and I don’t lose my place on the couch.

We’d all be able to relax. Just once.


Posted in: Exasperating