The “wild animal” myth: fascination and terror

Whether it’s hippos in Tbilisi or wolf poop in the front yard: predators unleash an archaic fear in us that is devoid of all reason.

Seems quite relaxed – the hippo in Tbilisi. Photo: dpa

They are photos of iconographic force that went around the world over the weekend from the Georgian capital Tbilisi: a hippopotamus trudging through a devastated street. A bear crouching on an air-conditioning box at the front of a building while murky floodwaters rage below. And all this in the middle of a European capital.

The inhabitants of Tbilisi were reminded twice of the elemental force of nature. A storm led to catastrophic flooding with numerous fatalities and property damage of more than 20 million euros. The city’s zoo was hit particularly hard, many enclosures were destroyed, which meant that suddenly bears, wolves, lions and tigers were also floating through the floods – and the very hippopotamus in question, which presumably had the least problems with the extreme weather conditions and rather seemed quite relaxed as it went about its stroll through the city.

Some of the animals were captured, others shot. In the confusing mixed situation, however, one or the other zoo inhabitant is still likely to roam between the houses and give the residents restless nights. Although the probability of falling victim to an electric cable or a car in Tbilisi is certainly still considerably higher than that of a tiger, the city administration nevertheless recommends that residents do not leave their homes because of the wild animals.

Because the predator releases an archaic fear in humans that is devoid of any rationality, while at the same time few things fascinate us as much as the myth of the "wild animal. Which is why it’s a big headline and the most-clicked news story when, as on Monday, two teenagers are attacked by sharks on the coast of North Carolina. Or when, as happened two weeks ago in South Africa, a tourist is attacked by a lion. The few thousand deaths in the country’s own road traffic, on the other hand, only appear as a collective statistic at the end of the year in some marginal news item.

And while half the country is jittering with panic because a wolf has set its pile in the front yard of a semi-detached house somewhere, no one thinks it’s a big deal to breed resistant pathogens through the exuberant use of antibiotics. But they don’t have teeth and don’t growl so terribly.

Real-Life Jurassic Park

Just how great the mixture of fascination and horror is towards the wild animal was – strange coincidence – also impressively confirmed this weekend. Critics may have grumbled all they wanted, but the dinosaur epic "Jurassic World" had the most successful opening of all time.

More than half a billion dollars have been spent by people worldwide to watch how the seemingly tamed creature overcomes its enclosure and lets its former masters end up as a small snack. At least the inhabitants of Tbilisi could save the money for the cinema, they got the same thrill for free. Not with Dolby surround sound, but in perfect 3-D.

We’ve done everything we can to keep nature at bay, we’ve moved to cities, we drive around in a sealed steel box and regulate the temperature at home – and suddenly a bear sits on top of the air conditioner and reminds us that we’re actually just part of the old eat-and-be-eaten game. Perhaps we always see each other twice in life.