Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Only Thing to Fear is Fear Itself

After many years of working as a naturalist, I've come to the conclusion that everyone has at least one animal phobia, sometimes more.

While I've wondered if some of this is innate, I've come to the conclusion that much of it is either learned (often from parents) or experiential. There is certainly room here for a great "Nature vs. Nurture" debate, though!

In my own case, I have a phobia about flying, buzzing insects. While it's entirely possible that I learned this from my mother, who also dislikes bees and wasps, she has told me a story that would also explain my intense fear and strong reaction. Apparently when I was quite young, I was playing hide and seek and I hid next to a wasp nest, resulting in a very painful sting right above my eye. That would certainly have done it!

The strangest phobia I've heard was an older adult woman who was extremely afraid of chickens. I was much younger when I learned of her fear and I questioned her about it, curious to understand. She related that when she was a toddler, her family would visit her grandparents' farm...and they raised chickens. The roosters would attack her, hence her fear, which still remained many, many years later. Very logical, when explained in those terms.

About 5 or 10 years later, when we raised chickens for a couple years, I got to experience the behavior of a couple testosterone-driven roosters myself. Talk about aggressive! A full size rooster attacking a toddler would be very frightening and could inflict some painful damage. No wonder the little tyke was scared! The roosters were somewhat intimidating, even to big, old, adult-sized me.

I'm not sure what the statistics are, but I would guess that snakes, spiders, and bees/wasps are close to a 3-way tie for first place in the "feared animal" slot. Other animal phobias I've heard about include bats, cattle, dogs, and horses.

So what to do about it? The best suggestion I've got is to learn as much as you can about your fear. Talk to your parents, if possible, and see if they know why you are scared of that animal. Learn as much as you can about the animal, or class of animals. Finally, try to steel yourself to watch your problem animal going about its daily life. You will probably never be completely comfortable around one, but if you can stop the automatic runaway panic mode, you'll be both less embarassed and less likely to inadvertently pass along your fear to the next generation.

Have I taken my own advice? Yep. I can now photograph bees and wasps without even quaking inside, and I tend to freeze rather than run away, wildly swatting, if one unexpectedly buzzes me. I've actually taught myself to rescue a wasp caught in the house by putting an empty jar over it, sliding a stiff piece of paper over the jar mouth to confine the wasp inside, and then releasing the wasp back outdoors. (It seems like a much better solution than breaking out the pane of glass by hitting the wasp with a shoe, like I did in my 4th floor, college dorm room "a few" years ago!)

The best part of all is that, as you learn, you'll realize that spiders, snakes, and many bees & wasps are great predators who are working to help keep problem insects and rodents out of your yard and away from your home. Good luck! (And I'd be quite curious to hear your favorite phobia stories too.)


Kitt said...

I count myself lucky to have had a mom who was a teacher at a nature center, so I grew up surrounded by people who would say, "Cool! Check this out!" when they encountered any kind of critter.

However, when my fiance was visiting one time, he called me into the bathroom so I could photograph this "cool bug" he found in the tub and was surprised when I said, "Ew! Gross! Get rid of it!" I can't stand house centipedes. They give me the willies.

~Gardener on Sherlock Street said...

I don't have any all out phobias but I wouldn't want any of the above mentioned inside my house! Last year we had a skink in our basement (we were remodeling and believe he hitched a ride in an insulation bundle we carried down there). I was sure by the "evidence" he left that it was a snake. We used glue traps. I was quite surprised to see the snake had legs when we caught it. We took it to a nearby creek and with the spray of a little cooking oil, he freed himself and scurried away.
There are rattle snakes in one of the pastures my parents own so my dad was always trying to get rid of them thinking they'd bite the cows. I think I'm doing good now to just let snakes pass but they do give me a start when I see the stick slide!
My mom has bad reactions from bee stings so she was always afraid of bees (especially bumble bees as a sting from one sent her to the doctor in a hurry). I really kinda like them. I dead head salvia right near them as they dine and we're getting along fine. Now, if a wasp makes a nest inside the track of our patio door as one did recently, it's losing the nest! Each has its place in the world.
In general, I think we'd all be better off to learn to share the space.

I am enjoying your blog as well. Thanks for all the great information.

Gaia Gardener: said...

Kitt, Have you ever wondered why you react like that to house centipedes? I'd be curious to know, since it sounds like you don't have any problems with the "normal suspects".

Sherlock, I'm sure glad that you were able to get the skink off the sticky trap; I'll have to remember that trick of using cooking oil if I need to free something from one in the future.

As far as snakes, I'd probably be goosier about them, too, if I grew up with a pasture full of rattlesnakes. (That said, I've had garter snakes pointed out to me as rattlesnakes, so I'm always curious about how proficient the identifier is. Bull snakes and black rat snakes are notorious for rattling their tales against dry leaves to sound like a rattlesnake.)

Your mother's bee allergy is certainly nothing to play around with; it sounds like she needs a bee phobia.

For me, one of my best "nature" memories involving a bee or wasp was when I was a teenager. My family and I watched a nest of paper wasps go through its annual cycle, securely sandwiched between the storm window and the inner window in my folks' kitchen. We got a ringside seat, from the first few cells tended by the queen to the colony dissolution in the fall.

Nowadays I leave black & yellow mud dauber nests alone, and have learned that they are reused by blue mud daubers, but do take down paper wasp nests that are near commonly used doors, etc.

Like you, I think we need to learn to coexist whenever possible.

Kitt said...

Those many, many legs just creep me out. And they move so quickly. I don't think my dislike is tied to any particular incident. And I'm not completely phobic, just grossed out.

Anonymous said...

I was really interested in the suggestions to get over the fear of bugs that fly and buzz. I am afraidof wasps and bees and my husband does the jar trick - however I would be to frightened to attempt this. I am finding more and more in the summer months that I am to nervous to go outside and am spending way too much time in the house. I do not use our garden at all. Any ideas would be welcome.