• Claire

Signs of distress

I walked along an endless stretch of beach, flanked by grassy dunes on one side and the ocean on the other. The water held its secrets, except for one. In the shallows ahead of me: the water churned, with a dark mass inside it. It was a huge thrashing manta ray, fighting with the sea, the sand. A few other people gathered around and we watched, enthralled and useless. Eventually, the ray managed to catch the momentum of a broken wave pulling back out to sea, and vanished.

That the ray had been struggling was clear in the violence of its movements. All us onlookers knew it was where it was not supposed to be. Its size alone was incompatible with the shallow water. Yet it isn't always so clear when a wild animal is in distress when you don't know what signs to look for. I remember seeing a hedgehog out in the day years ago and wondering if that was normal, only to move on, assuming it was okay because it didn't appear, to me, to be in obvious trouble. I know better now, but at the time I was reassured by a false belief that nature can take care of itself. I didn't grasp how much human activity and infrastructure had impaired its ability to do so.

I know I am far from alone in being ignorant of signs of distress in wild animals. It is another outcome of poor eco-literacy, of living lives so insulated from the wild ones around us. Many of us don't know when something is wrong with the wildlife we encounter because we don't know what normal looks like to begin with. This is perhaps another form of the 'shifting baseline syndrome' that generally skews understandings of abundance in other species.

We are taught when young what to do in an emergency - but only in human emergencies. There is a deep imprint of the recovery position in the back of my brain. This isn't to say we all leap into action every time we see a fellow human being in trouble. And the more trouble we see, the less we tend to help. Unless you attended some kind of special club or camp, or perhaps were a boy scout in the US, or had parents who knew more than most about the outdoors, there was likely no equivalent education in your childhood about wildlife. And unless you seek out this education for yourself, who is going to teach you what you need to know in adulthood?

Because we do need to know. Wildlife can't count on any given person strolling by to recognise what's right in front of their eyes, let alone know how to help. Filling this gap in our ecological knowledge would mean, of course, learning what is normal and healthy for the creatures we are likely to encounter in our day-to-day lives. It would mean knowing who to call if we spot trouble. It should also mean expanding our sense of who is worth helping. A bee coming too early out of hibernation or suffering from thirst in a heatwave is as deserving of assistance as a manta ray struggling to escape the shallows.

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