Who is Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?
“Oh, but, grandmother, what a terrible big mouth you have,” said Little Red Riding Hood.
“The better to eat you with,” said the wolf. And scarcely had the wolf said this, than with one bound he was out of bed and swallowed up Little Red Riding Hood.
—from the Brothers Grimm “Little Red Riding Hood”
In the fairy tale, Little Red Riding Hood is devoured by the Big Bad Wolf because she didn’t fear him enough to flee; after all, she thought he was her sickly grandmother. In nature, similarly naïve creatures—such as unsuspecting elk living among reintroduced wolves in Yellowstone Park—fall prey to predators they have either forgotten, or never learned, to fear. Joel Berger is fascinated by this counterintuitive behavior. Why don’t Little Red Riding Hood or the elks try to elude their predators? And what role does fear—or lack thereof—play in survival of both the ungulates of Yellowstone and other species across the globe? To answer these questions, Berger traveled the world studying predator-prey relationships across climates and continents.
The Better to Eat You With is the chronicle of his research. Reviewing the book in the July 17 Times Literary Supplement, Barbara J. King notes
Basing his work on fifteen years’ research in punishing winterscapes from Yellowstone to the Russian Far East to Mongolia, Berger reports solid scientific information then goes beyond it in an extraordinary effort to understand animal fear and its role in survival and reproduction. The result is a luminous account of animal individuality and emotion.
Thorny real-world questions about animal-human relationships punctuate the book.… The irony astounds: we humans evolved with the most sophisticated cultural transmission skills of any animal, yet too often we are overcome with unreason when it comes to sharing our space with other animals. The real message of The Better To Eat You With is this: as human populations expand, we must find ways to encourage human beings to coexist with other animals more effectively.
Whether battling bureaucracy in the statehouse or fighting subzero wind chills in the field, Berger puts himself in the middle of the action and The Better to Eat You With invites readers to join him there. The lessons he learns, both in the field and in the hearing rooms, will have lasting impact on the future of conservation, not to mention our understanding of animal behavior in the face of nature’s big bad wolves.
For more on The Better to Eat You With, listen in as Berger drops in to chat with Bob Edwards about fear in the animals world.