Fear of Predators Can Make Us Less Safe

Readers — Yes, this study happens to be about fire ants, but it struck me as hugely metaphoric. I think you’ll see why! – L.

Fear of predators may be a bigger killer than the predators themselves

(PhysOrg.com) — When biologists consider the effects that predators have on their prey, they shouldn’t just count the number of individuals consumed. According to a University of Rhode Island ecologist, they must also examine the effects of fear.

URI Assistant Professor Evan Preisser said that fear of being eaten can reduce population densities as much or even more than the actual quantities of individuals killed by predators.

“Prey are far from helpless victims of predators,” said Preisser. “They employ a wide array of defensive strategies to protect themselves. But the costs of these strategies may have a larger impact on their population than the direct effect of being eaten.”

To avoid being consumed by a predator, many prey species will spend more time hiding and less time eating. This can lead to a lower body mass, reduced reproduction rates, fewer offspring, and a lower rate of survival.

Preisser notes that fire ants, for example, are highly successful at finding resources, but they are “totally freaked out” by a species of parasitoid fly that lays its eggs inside the ants, which ultimately kills them.

“If one of these flies comes along, all the ants will hide and remain hidden for a really long time,” he said. “Research by Donald Feener at the University of Utah has shown that the flies actually have a very low success rate at killing the ants because the ants are so good at hiding. They spend so much time in hiding, however, that the whole ant population becomes weaker.”

Which inevitably reminds me of the letter I put in my book to try to illustrate what a “fear of predators” can do to another species:

Dear Free-Range Kids: I’m 15 right now and get pretty much no freedom. I’m limited to what’s inside the house and the backyard. I can’t even go as far as the sidewalk — I might be ‘abducted or killed.’ I used to walk to a bus stop, but my dad said it was too dangerous, so he started driving me there (it’s a 5 minute walk!), and eventually he just started driving me to school. Today, after playing video games for two hours or so, I went downstairs and realized that the only things I could do there were eat and watch TV. Watching TV, playing video games, and eating junk food are fun and all, but after even just a few days, it gets old. (I’ve been on winter break for half a week now.) I don’t want my kids (if I ever even have kids) to live like me at all.

So the next time your friends question why you let your kids walk to school or go to the park unsupervised, tell them, sagely: “Consider the fire ant.” (Because big-time lectures about independence and resilience only get you so far.)  – L

I can't go out to play. There are predators!

I can’t go out to play. There are predators!

 

 

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23 Responses to Fear of Predators Can Make Us Less Safe

  1. Dirk July 2, 2014 at 11:46 am #

    I am strongly pro free range. It’s hard to imagine kids actually living that way…

    The only real reason is like the example offered in this websites pro and con section…

    By Nicole Wed Apr 9th 2008 at 8:02 pm
    Congratulations on living in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Manhattan. Of course your son was safe. I live in the Germantown section of Philadelphia and I wouldn’t even risk waiting for the train alone here. I don’t live in Mayberry. I’m not worried about my son getting “stolen” and killed; I’m worried that my child will get beaten and brutalized by other children. Or molested. Or offered drugs. These are real fears for those of us who live in what you folks might call ghettos. I don’t have luxury of letting my young son cross town alone. He’ll have to wait until he is big enough not to be picked on

  2. pentamom July 2, 2014 at 11:59 am #

    What “Nicole” there doesn’t realize is that the overwhelming majority of American children live in conditions far closer to Lenore’s situation (even if they’re not “one of the wealthiest neigbhorhoods in Manhattan”) than to Germantown. So it’s far more reasonable for Lenore’s advice to be the general one for Americans, than Nicole’s.

    But there’s always this “it’s not applicable to me so no one should ever say it” brigade on the Internet.

  3. anonymous mom July 2, 2014 at 12:08 pm #

    I think just the explosion of the use of the word “predator” is part of the problem. I don’t remember, when I was growing up, people talking about “predators.” Sure, we knew there were kidnappers and child molesters and murderers, but it seems like in the last decade we have decided there is this class of “predators” out there, which of course is going to make people feel unsafe.

    While I don’t doubt there are some individuals out there who really do actively, continually going around looking for potential victims to prey on, I don’t believe for a moment that that describes most criminals, even most people who molest or murder children. More often than not, these are, like all other crimes, committed not by diabolical predators who have masterminded the perfect crime, but by people who are impulsive and often under the influence of drugs or alcohol (and in some cases who are severely mentally ill).

    I think we’d do well to discard this notion of “predators,” as if there’s some subset of the population who are actively and always trying to come up with ingenious ways to harm our children. That’s the stuff of TV crime shows and mystery novels, not reality.

  4. Dee July 2, 2014 at 12:30 pm #

    I totally agree! I think this article nails it in describing a lot of parents and kids. That said a “species of parasitoid fly that lays its eggs inside the ants, which ultimately kills them” would scare the crap out of me, too!

  5. hancock July 2, 2014 at 12:52 pm #

    “It’s dangerous! So very very dangerous!”

    “What’s dangerous, Mom?”

    “EVERYTHING!”

    “Everything?”

    Yes! Everything!”

    “Can I play outside?”

    “No. There are bears, rattle snakes, gangster, child molesters, and crazed maniacs with guns… and germs. You could die”

    “Can I have a snack?”

    “No. I’m out of organic home made quinoa granola with raw honey”

    “Can I play video games?”

    “No. You’ll get violent ideas”

    “Is there anything I can do?”

    “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”

  6. tdruttenberg July 2, 2014 at 4:14 pm #

    Hey Nicole, I grew up near Germantown when it was cool and not dangerous (the 70s – my Mom taught at Pickett Middle School), but I remember when it started going downhill. Very sad. I am as freerange as they come and IMO you are certainly prudent in your precautions. I live in Baltimore and I exercise the same precautions in the areas that are unsafe.

    “Freerange” does not rule out taking sensible precautions when they are necessary.

  7. anonymous mom July 2, 2014 at 4:57 pm #

    I live in Detroit. I don’t think that living in an inner-city is reason to be paranoid. Yes, I take certain types of precautions I wouldn’t in a safer area; my son isn’t allowed to travel alone as far as he might otherwise. But, there are just not marauding gangs of children wandering around waiting to beat him up, or pedophiles on every corner waiting to molest him, or drug dealers just waiting to approach him. I know people who think it’s too dangerous to stop at a red light or get gas in the city, but that’s simply not true; you just have to exercise reasonable caution. I’m not sure, frankly, that I trust the account of anybody who says they can’t wait for a train alone in their city. At 2 a.m., sure, but even in the worst neighborhoods in Detroit there’s very little to fear during the day.

  8. Tamara July 2, 2014 at 5:41 pm #

    I don’t think this mentality is only common in big cities, bad neighbourhoods and ghettos. I live in Small City, Canada (not its real name) and here it’s just as bad. People take parenting advice from Facebook – wtf? They drive their kids 2 blocks to school and let your kids go to the park? Alone? I lived one block from the elementary school and my kids were the very few playing there after school. To top it off, we just had a real actual “kidnapping” of a baby left in a running vehicle so you can’t even mention anything free range without having that incident thrown in your face. In reality, a car was left running for a few minutes in a driveway and the car was stolen, the babe happened to be in it. The baby was recovered and the thieves captured but now it’s “see, even here in Small City our children are unsafe!”

    I happen to feel that the mom *should* have been able to leave her baby in the car while picking up an item in a private driveway but all you hear is how wrong that parent was to do so and how lucky she is her baby was found and alive.

    Fear = obedience and ridicule and shame = conformity which = obedience. It’s a vicious cycle. Or some sort of elliptical shaped cycle.

  9. MichaelF July 2, 2014 at 9:59 pm #

    I used to live in unsafe areas of Boston in the 80’s and 90’s. I would never raise my kids in that sort of environment, if I had the choice, but I also realize advice that I use where I live now, in a well-off suburb, and what I would do in certain areas of Boston are completely different. It’s all about risk mitigation on EVERYTHING, but the risks you have to face as a parent are going to differ by environment and culture. Much as the Drive-Thru culture might want us to believe, it is NOT one size fits all.

  10. Lauren July 2, 2014 at 10:27 pm #

    Ironic. Here in South Carolina kids can’t play outside because of fire ants. When my brother was three he got a few bites and went into anaphylactic shock. He was fine but spent his childhood in front of the TV… because of fire ants.

  11. Havva July 2, 2014 at 10:41 pm #

    With the title, I thought you had found a study linking paranoid parenting to suicide, diabetes, and other ill health.

    Those raised in helicopterland and friends are going to speak out as they reach adulthood. What they suffered will make it into art and culture and eventually I think we will begin to see this treatment not viewed as a “protective” or a harmless parental prerogative. Perhaps not even as sort of wacky kinda paranoid like the helicopter parents a friend of mine suffered. But ultimately, I expect will be viewed as a red flag for some sort of abuse (emotional at minimum). When a woman over 18, of normal mental health and abilities, is so closely monitored that she needs to get a disposable cell and engineer her own disappearance in order to get free of her parents… It isn’t overprotective. It is abuse.

  12. K July 2, 2014 at 10:58 pm #

    Our society has gone too far in blaming the victim and/or victim’s family for not providing adequate protection, rather than the predator/criminal. For example, we all have to have antivirus software and the person responsible for the virus gets a great paying job at Microsoft. It would be better for everyone if the victims were free of guilt and the criminals were responsible. Individuals would then be free to choose how much protection to provide or not provide.

  13. K July 2, 2014 at 11:06 pm #

    Havva,
    I agree this is a type of abuse and not the type of parent I am or want to be. However, in the defense of the parents CPS really hits parents hard if anything happens to their kids. CPS and the current laws encourage overly protective parenting.

  14. Andrew July 3, 2014 at 6:53 am #

    Life is for living. A life spent indoors, watching TV, playing video games and eating junk food, is not living.

    What kind of preparation for life is that?

  15. anonymous mom July 3, 2014 at 9:17 am #

    K, we have many problems in the U.S., but not treating criminals harshly enough is not one of them.

  16. Dhewco July 3, 2014 at 9:50 am #

    This may be a weird comment and I’m sorry if it is…but where do those who say that the average predator molests a hundred children or more in a lifetime come up with that number? I don’t personally have children (although I was a step parent of sorts (lived with a gf at one time) and even though I was involved with my gf’s kids little league and taught TKD at one time, I can’t imagine being around that many kids close enough to perv on them. (I can’t imagine perving, but anyway…).

    All that was a way of saying this, to be so paranoid of predators has to assume that nearly everyone is a predator. A person can’t think like that. I’m not a perv and my significant other isn’t a perv…so that’s two people. God willing, there’s more of us ‘normal’ people out there.

  17. SteveS July 3, 2014 at 9:56 am #

    K, paranoia about CPS seems to be just as harmful as paranoia about predators.

  18. Jill July 3, 2014 at 10:04 am #

    The question to ask is, who benefits from this pervasive atmosphere of fear? Research the misinformation being spread by organizations like the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children,and consider that a frightened population is an easily manipulated population.

  19. marie July 3, 2014 at 10:28 am #

    where do those who say that the average predator molests a hundred children or more in a lifetime come up with that number?

    They make up those numbers. Just like the “stat” (I just saw on FB) that says 1 in 4 girls are raped. Or the “stat” that says 100,000 children are trafficked for sex in the U.S.

    Made up. Fiction. Pulled out of a hat.

  20. Dhewco July 3, 2014 at 10:41 am #

    Marie, you mean Law & Order: SVU didn’t quote a real number? LOL. Shocking.

  21. lihtox July 3, 2014 at 10:52 am #

    @Lauren: I thought of that too. We lived in Texas when my daughter was a toddler, and anytime we were outside I was a little nervous that she would stumble upon a fire ant nest. Fortunately, she seemed to avoid them intuitively, but still I felt more comfortable having her run around in the paved cul-de-sac than in the grass. Wish we’d had some of those flies around! :)

  22. Tamara July 3, 2014 at 12:13 pm #

    @jill – I agree, the whole point is to manipulate and the sooner people see that and start getting angry about it, the sooner we will see some change in this world. I always tell people: Follow The Money. It is no accident.

  23. Andy July 3, 2014 at 4:56 pm #

    @K First of all, the malware creator gets a job in Microsoft is a myth. It is something you see in movies from 80, not in the real life.

    Second, American punishments for computer related acts are extremely high and DOJ opinion on what everything can be interpreted as a hacking is insane. Very minor or even harmless acts can lead to years in prison if you managed to anger someone. The definition of hacking is very overboard – as broad as “any use of the system other then originally intended” – and there were attempts to make it include “any breaking of any TOS”.