Normally, all wildlife have an inherent instinct that allows them to function and survive, but for many imprinting is a manner of the formative time when a mammal learns initially from the parent about basic behavioral traits that could mean the difference between life and death. This is especially essential for animals who fall prey to predators such as deer, gazelle, wildebeests, reindeer, or porcupine. Learning a defensive posture is tantamount to life itself as they are constantly within reach of predators.
Crucial early development
Imprinting for predators is inherently more complex. Lion cubs must learn to coordinate with a pride of other lions in order to hunt. A cheetah mother must not only kill and provide food for her cubs but she must urge them into stalking prey while also avoiding predators such as hyena, leopards, and lions while still being able to take down speedy Thompson’s Gazelles, wild pigs, and even young water buffalo if the calf is far enough away from the herd. Without imprinting early on a mother that has not been injured or killed will lose her cubs who will soon be eaten by any number of scavengers or apex predators.
What happens when the human becomes the imprint for a wildlife member anything from a bear, to a goose, to coyotes, or even cougars? This will usually happen due to the baby being separated from the mother in the wild. Perhaps, mother fell from the bullet of a hunter or poacher. Maybe, mother was killed attempting to take down prey that injured her and as a result of being weakened she was killed by a competing predator. This often happens to cats in the wild whether it occurs on the North American continent or in Africa. Survival is not guaranteed to anyone. The rules of nature seem cruel, but such activity is based upon the symbiosis of a perfect biosphere that thrives here on the face of the earth.
Some people seem to have a psychic connection with animals and can communicate overcoming the human wildlife barrier or seemingly so. A number of years ago one man made a career and an entertainment niche out of being the “Horse Whisperer” able to get skittish animals to climb into a trailer, helping them overcoming anxiety over participating in rodeo events, and even establishing a loving relationship between an owner and an animal that simply can’t seem to accept each other. Now, there seems to be Lion whisperers who can go out into the veld and make a gesture to a pride of female lions without being attacked. Jane Goodall seemed to have established an incredible rapport with chimpanzees and mountain gorillas. Still this is not quite imprinting getting wild animals to overcome their natural fear of humans.
No turning back
When baby ducks are taken into care due to the mother dying they adopt the human who saved them as their parent. In one particular animal entertainment segment a goose follows the man around that began caring for it soon after it was hatched. The goose flew everywhere the man and his family went whether he was boating, driving, or mowing his yard, the goose was convinced that his human counterpart was the mother. The same incredibly has occurred with Grizzly Bear cubs, cougars, wolves, coyotes, foxes, and even dolphins! Once under captivity or domesticating conditions and early enough in life and the wild animal will become docile as a pet and become so dependent upon the human being that they cannot live without them. In the wild a parent will teach the necessary skills to its young and then push them out of the nest or even chase them away forcing them to fend for themselves having learned the necessary skills to survive, but not when humans intervene. Normally, the untamed predator cannot be rewilded most often bear cubs that have imprinted with their human masters cannot return to a wild habitat. They would die in days or weeks. Few times have they been able to do so.
A true lion story
A very famous natural wildlife film drama “Born Free” years ago centered around a lioness who had been picked up from the Kenyan wilderness when the mother had apparently been killed. The animal was raised lovingly by a family but once she was fully grown a decision was made to release her into the wild with much trepidation as it was known most wild animals could not adjust back to the ruthless environment of the African Savana or any wilderness setting. Yet, not only did she successfully adapt, she became part of a pride. Six years later, two members of the family went back to the area where the lioness was picked up as a cub and she recognized her human saviors! The lion left the side of a wild male who accepted her reunification with her human counterparts and a joyous exchange of affection ensued. The female lion was genuinely happy to see her former human keepers. The two brothers had no idea if they would be remembered much less attacked if the female had become completely wild again.
Bear Cubs are very adroit at imprinting with humans and learning from them. The relationship becomes affectionate and dependent, but the bears become so dependent that it is a high maintenance job with a potentially deadly playmate as a bear is awesomely powerful, the main focus is food, hunting for it, foraging for it, and defending that food once it has it. The bear, though dependent upon its perceived human parent is so much more powerful that discipline as with any parent offspring relationship must be implemented, but in a modified way. A mother bear can roar, slap the growing cub demonstrating physical superiority, but not a human surrogate mother who could get easily mauled. The human keeper must use mental cues or signals to direct the bear’s behavior. Making the bear accept human direction and verbal signals must be established.
There are human families who have united with black bears or brown bears with love and affection but respect must be shown for the strength of an apex predator that has found itself in an unnatural position with a human it has imprinted with as its parent. Timothy Treadwell known as the “Grizzly Man” took his life of personal problems with drugs and confrontations with the law, went to a wilderness area of Alaska heavily populated by Kodiak Bears and without adopting cubs or establishing a fear in the local wild animals simply carved out a co-existence with the wild. He forced the bears to acknowledge his presence without using force or protection. Timothy learned the body language of these massive predators, knew when and how to approach them, and familiarized himself with being around them without provoking an attack. He would stay in this bizarre coexistence beginning early in spring until harsh winter weather would begin. This went on for several years. He would even swim with them in the river, but knew the bears did not want to be touched.
Being in a complex position of coexisting with wild bear was not imprinting it was not being a bear whisperer either. This was a deadly dance of grudging acceptance, bluffing, courage, and adjusting to the limits of behavior toleration with animals that could kill him on short notice. Yet, after going to his pressure relief valve in life when bear season would begin again and once more, Treadwell left for another trek into Grizzly country. Sadly, he was killed by an elderly bear that was not familiar like the others with Timothy’s normal camping area among them as they had grown to recognize him. He, along with his girlfriend were killed and eaten as an aging bear is forced to hunt for the easiest prey to take down in order to survive! Ironically, he was killed just hours before his partner and bush pilot friend had landed to pick him and his girlfriend up.
Treadwell, if not having enough to deal with also dealt with hunters wanting to kill the bear and who resented his presence. Timothy often left little calling cards for the hunters just to let them know he was there looking after the bears. This irritated the hunters who thought he was crazy for the hazardous form of life that the “Grizzly Man” had become accustomed to. That the wild bears remembered Treadwell who came back year after year once they emerged from hibernation and tolerated his presence was amazing in of itself. Yet, it seemed few people understood. Even park rangers were not comfortable with his actions, but allowed it to go on.
Rescue love affair
A man in Florida rescued a dolphin kept in captivity for a number of years by an amateur marine life zoo exhibit owner. The poor dolphin was forced to live in dirty water in a pool made for humans and had gotten so miserable it had attempted to commit suicide by ramming headlong into the concrete sides of the pool it lived in. With help from local authorities the man captured the stricken dolphin and rendered aid by liberating it from its imprisonment and nursed the animal back to health. Bringing the dolphin back to Florida with him, once the animal was back to full health he released the marine mammal right offshore near where he lived. He was quite surprised to find that the dolphin refused to swim out to sea and remained near his beach dwelling. The dolphin actually loved the man who had released him.
Living together as equals
Such relationships go on between the elephant handlers of Thailand and India. The animals will establish a lifelong relationship with the handler who rides them, washes them, feeds them, exercises them, and even works them as an animal powered tractor for lifting and carrying cargo. Eagles have imprinted with their human counterparts as well but still that wild instinct cannot not be ignored. There are eagle owners who play games with their swift carnivore raptors who will snatch food or toys from their outstretched hands and enjoy every minute of it. Perhaps, we greatly under estimate not only the intelligence of animals but also their capacity for appreciation once they have been rescued.
In the wild most animals have a stronger aversion to human presence and even the most powerful of predators such as pumas or bears will avoid people whenever possible unless driven by hunger or the confusion of human dwellings infringing upon their habitat! However, strangely enough if the bear cub, the fox pups, the cougar baby are saved by a person and handled with loving care, an amazing acceptance emerges that scientists call imprinting and soon the surrogate parent that stand upright on two legs, feed the abandoned animal, and then become more than just a keeper in the eyes of their animal friend. The natural obstacle between wildlife and human beings is overcome and a new chance at life for the animal begins. Perhaps, for the person, a new lease on life begins as well.