How to Gauge the Comfort Level of an Animal (or Human)
Humans and animals are extremely different, and comfort zones and observation protocols are no exception. Here’s a quick an easy guide to both people- and animal-watching/interacting:
There are four zones that FGASA (Field Guide Association of South Africa) recognizes as the space given to an individual animal. This ranges from the Comfort zone to the Critical zone. Everyone, not just guides in South Africa, should always aim to remain in an animals’ Comfort zone. The comfort zone is something that is not a specific distance or a range, but rather you must constantly gauge the individuals behavior, mood, and the surrounding environment. Anything- the wind blowing through the leaves, the crack of a tree, the movement of an antelope nearby, the invasion of personal space- could spook the individual. You must be constantly vigilant in order to determine what zone you truly are in. Now, depending on your goal, if you treat humans the way you should treat animal sightings you might not achieve much…
The Comfort Zone
The Comfort zone is defined as the area or distance that an animal (or human) is required to have in order to feel comfortable and safe in the presence of another organism, be that humans or other animals. At this point the animal will continue carrying out its normal activities. This is ideal when you are approaching animals. You want to remain on the periphery in order not to draw attention to yourself so that the animal is unaware of your presence.
This “comfort zone” is also extremely important if you are people-watching. In this wonderful way to pass the time, it is important that you do not disturb your subject by being too obvious. You want to blend into the background of the airport, coffee shop, or subway stop in order to get human-interaction and behavior at its finest. If your chosen subject notices you staring, they might even have a flight-or-fight response, therefore losing your entertainment. Learning how to keep within the comfort zone of people is a critical skill to learn if you like to people-watch…
The Alert Zone
The Alert zone occurs when you have gotten close enough that the animal is aware of your presence and has frozen. Sometimes the animal will determine you’re not a threat and then continue on feeding or its normal activity, while other times it might flee to a safer distance. This might be if the animal is at a watering hole and you pull up to watch it drink. The lion or elephant might pause, watch you and your vehicle until you stop and it can see you’re not a threat.
For humans, this is like sitting at the bar next to someone attractive. You both size each other up a little and assess what to do next. Are they as attractive up close as they were from your booth? Would they be interested in you? Have they noticed you? Who is going to make the next move? This gives the person you semi-approached to flee back to the safety of their friends, or to perceive you as non-threatening. Entering the Alert zone of another human is like preparing to make the first move… or someone who is too shy to actually talk to the person but hopes that the other will notice them and speak up. Staying in the Alert zone is playing it safe…
The Warning Zone
If you approach an animal even more and enter in the warning zone you are now putting yourself, and whoever is with you, at risk. This is when the animal sees you as a definite threat and may even give you warning signs that you have approached too close. Depending on the animal you will see various warning signs. For example, an elephant might size you up and flap its ears at you while a cheetah might crouch and hiss at you. Basically, some sort of combination snarling, baring teeth, tossing of the head, raising of swishing of the tail is going to indicate that you have approached too close. The problem is that if you don’t know the animals behavior well enough you may mistake it for yawning, smelling, or even a flehmen grimace (see photo). This is why it is dire that you understand the animals you are working with. If you are unaware of the warning signs you are going to be danger without even knowing it.
I like to think that the Warning zone for humans is initiating contact. I associate this with you sitting at a bar with your friends, and a guy comes over and starts up a casual conversation. Whoever is initiating the contact is entering into the warning zone, she/he now has the possibility of being rejected, shot down for making the first move, or stuck with someone who might not stop talking the whole night. The warning zone is when you officially put yourself out there, and from there you never know what will happen next.
The Critical Zone
The final zone is called the critical zone, when is when the animal gives you less of a warning and more of a charge or an immediately flee. The animal will reply either on finding the quickest escape route or, especially for the larger mammals, they feel that an attack is best form of defense that the animal can take. You never, ever want to be in the critical zone with an animal, especially a large one. Not only have you completely invaded its personal space, but it feels overly threatened that it feels it must make some sort of aggressive response to you. Here you have forced the animal into such a place where the animal must make a drastic move. Either to frantically leave, or confront you head on.
In our parallel human world, this is when you ask someone out. It’s the end of the night, you had a great time chatting with someone and you realize you want to see them again. So you ask them point-blank for their number. They have no where they can go, and no matter what you ultimately can walk away with two outcomes. You get their number or you don’t. Comparable to the fight-or-flight response, the flight reaction will come in the form of an excuse: “oh I actually have a girlfriend”, “sorry I just lost my phone”, “I’m not looking for that kind of thing right now”. In the “fight” response, in my tame version of this comparison at least, the person you ask out reciprocates in kind to your advances and gives you their number. Maybe not a full on fight, but they show their interest and stay to match you at your level.
Obviously this comparison is not completely accurate, however in my mind, whenever I am out in the city, I like to compare it to my life in the bush, and vise versa. When out at a bar, or even just wandering the city, you’ve got to read the warning signs of other people, assess the environment and what may distract or upset an individual, just as you would in the wild. I’m not saying that mind always works just like Lindsay Lohan in Mean Girls, where humans act like animals around a watering hole… But lets be honest, I’m not saying it doesn’t… Know your purpose, your boundaries and the boundaries of those around you. Whether in the wilds of South Africa or the jungle of New York City, assessing and considering the actions and reactions of those around you may make all the difference.
Male lion demonstrating a flehmen grimace* rather than a growl or snarl:
*note: a flehmen grimace, or flehmen response, is when a animal will pull back its upper lips to expose its teeth and sometimes its gums, in order to transfer scents such as pheromones, from the urine or faeces, to the vomeronasal organ which is located at the roof of the mouth.