A Predator I Can Understand

    When I moved from downtown Toronto to the Rocky Mountains, my fears only shifted from one kind of threat to another.

    “It is very difficult to predict the best strategy to use in the event of a bear attack. That is why it is so important to put thought and energy into avoiding an encounter in the first place.”

    —Parks Canada

    In big cities, there are certain ways that women steel themselves before they leave the comfort of a friend’s home or a well-enough-lit bar, and enter the night world. General rules apply to everyone, but these are just for us.

    There is adrenaline, quick steps, keys between knuckles, the volume of our music turned down low. Then we have to decide: If I cut down this road, I’ll get home faster. But there are no lights, and no one’s around. You gamble because you need to. You take chances despite all the stories you’ve heard, just to get the scary part over with faster.

    In the Rocky Mountains, where I live now, it’s the animals you need to watch out for at night. Of course, there are still people who might do you harm, but since I moved here, my keys have stayed in my bag, and walking home at night has never felt safer. It seems so much less personal being attacked by a predator who’s not your same species.

    Animal attacks are rare, of course, but there are stories of the foolish and the unsuspecting. Cougars stalk trail runners, bears get defensive around their cubs, and wolves are smart enough to trap other animals on overpasses and tear their throats out. It could be you, if you’re not careful.

    But you can’t blame them. That’s what animals do.

    Use officially marked paths and trails. Make noise.

    The year I lived in Toronto’s west end, women kept getting abducted and attacked in my neighbourhood. One was kidnapped, held in a basement, and raped by two men. Others were merely groped on their nighttime jogs. We called those ones lucky.

    The ambiguity of the police warnings — woman sexually assaulted in a Dufferin Street alley — was enough to keep my mind whirring on my commutes home. Stick together, my training taught me, ask the bus driver to get as close as possible, have a pretend conversation on your phone, as if people call anymore.

    I know the police warnings were meant to keep us alert, but maybe they didn’t know we’d been given the rubric years ago: They taught it to us in middle school phys ed while boys played Horse on the other side of the gym divider curtain, thick as an X-ray apron at the dentist, so it would stay just between us girls.

    I quickened my steps after dusk and gave parked cars wide berths, like I was told.

    The building where I work now is nestled at the base of a mountain, and the quickest way down is a path through the forest. On it there are five street lamps that light the way after dusk, but their golden-yellow glow only seems to cast longer shadows.

    In the daylight, I can see that the hill alongside the cemetery to the left isn’t all that steep or long, but at night the space loses all dimension and I watch for glowing eyes watching me.

    That’s what I worry about out here: a different kind of predator. It feels right in some ways; these unknowable creatures are supposed to invoke a certain level of fear. They’re wild and unpredictable, they’ll maul you without thinking, or stomp on your head with their sharp hooves in a forest so deep no one will find you for days. But I’m content to be scared of them because it feels like the natural order.

    It doesn’t feel right to be more scared of men.

    Try to appear nonthreatening. Talk in a calm voice.

    “Hey,” his voice pawed at me through the darkness of the school yard before a face came into view. I was walking home from a party, drunk and dressed up. The playground was always the last obstacle before the safety of home. Seeing the jungle gym made my heart knock against my ribs. Accidents happen closest to home, I was always sure to remind myself.

    “Do you have a cigarette?” He rose from his shadowy seat, dressed all in black like me and smelling like bourbon as I did. We had so much in common.

    “No, sorry,” I said, trying to stop my body from noticeably tensing. I glanced over his shoulder at my street. I was maybe 150 steps from my front door, a fact that made me grit my teeth — details like that make the stories so much sadder, make girlfriends share warnings on Facebook with horror.

    “You look really beautiful tonight,” he said, like he knew me.

    I spun the wheel of options in my brain. Click click click. Tell him to fuck off. Click. No, he’ll be mad, stay calm. Click. Smile. Don’t be threatening. Click. But don’t give him the wrong impression.

    “Thank you,” I said, without smiling.

    He stepped toward me, sizing me up. “What are you doing right now?”

    “Just heading home,” casual yet firm. “Have a good night.”

    I walked away. Not too fast, never completely turning my back on him. I dipped around parked cars, acting natural, my heightened senses taking in details just in case. I could feel this hunter’s eyes cutting through the black, boring into me.

    I took one last look behind me, half expecting him to have snuck up somehow, before I slipped into my doorway. Then I turned the bolt and settled on the stairs.

    I hated myself for thanking him. I didn’t want to be polite, and I didn’t want to be prey.

    Try to intimidate him. If he approaches closely, use your bear spray.

    Bears can seem a lot like people. They can walk on their hind legs, and sometimes when we wave at them, they wave back. We keep versions of them in our beds at night, cute ones with marble eyes and soft noses, but the real ones shouldn’t be tampered with. They’re not the monsters we once thought they were, but they’re still wild.

    People here get attached. Every bear in the park is collared and tracked and given a number. Sometimes bears get hit by trains, and we feel sadness for an idea of a creature we wouldn’t know what to do with up close.

    When we first arrived in Banff last summer, my boyfriend and I went for an afternoon walk in the woods not far from our apartment. I knew there were active animals in the area, but we hadn’t brought bear spray, which worried me a little. You can never be too cautious.

    He wasn’t nervous, though; he’s comfortable not preparing for the worst. As we walked, I asked him again if he was sure it was safe.

    “It’s fine,” he said, never breaking his stride. He thinks everything is fine, but I’m used to mulling risk, to deciding between the shortcut and the long way home. It doesn’t even cross his mind. Why should it? Risks to his body are different than risks to mine. My boyfriend worries about work, the state of Kyle Lowry’s elbow, and finding time to ride his bicycle. I worry about men — the ones I know, the ones I don’t.

    I obsessively scanned the forest on either side of the path. It was a gorgeous day, the sun glinting off of the leaves, tracing patterns on the forest floor. I rolled my shoulders back like I always do when I’m trying to relax. Each time I’m surprised to find them up by my ears, tense and knotted. Maybe an afternoon stroll didn’t have to be more complicated than that.

    But up ahead, rustling. A bear lumbered across the path in front of us from one side of the woods to the next. It was so much more graceful than I thought it would be, despite its size. To see a bear that closely after years of mixed messages muddled my reaction — I want to hug you, I want to run.

    Most people here don’t have a problem blaming those who get attacked by animals. There was a warning; she shouldn’t have walked there. He was asking for it. He put the bear at risk. A fed bear is a dead bear, they say, meaning the animals pay with their lives when we make bad decisions. It’s cut-and-dried what you can and can’t do — step outside of those boundaries and you’ll find no sympathy.

    Animals act on instinct, but people are supposed to be better than that: I know a bear’s radius, but how much more space do men get to take up? I’ve come to enjoy the black-and-whiteness of dealing with simpler creatures.

    There’s something addictive about knowing you can stay the course and things will work out, especially after a lifetime of planning for the worst. I respect the rules that make sense to me, and those have nothing to do with parked cars and alleyways. With animals, you don’t have to account for politics, or worry about offending them with your disinterest. They won’t call you a cunt on the internet, or follow you home.

    To them, we’re the predators and they’re just doing their best to stay alive in a dangerous world that no longer belongs to them, or maybe never did. I understand that feeling.

    My boyfriend turned to run away, then remembered what I’d told him. Never turn your back to a bear. Don’t speed up, don’t make him panic. We took quick steps backwards until we’d turned a bend.

    “Holy shit,” he said, resuming his regular pace. “I guess I was wrong.”

    “I told you,” I said, looking over my shoulder just in case. At least this time, I knew what to do, knew if I followed the rules I’d be OK.

    Play dead.

    Later that summer the Perseids were scheduled to appear — the brightest meteor shower of the year. I’d gone to bed and set an alarm for myself for its 1 a.m. arrival time. I left my boyfriend asleep in bed and snuck out bundled in warm clothes with a blanket and a tiny light from my bicycle. I didn’t think twice about going alone.

    The recreation fields behind my low-rise were the perfect place to get a good view, free from the dull lights peeking out of bedroom windows. After years of starless, smoggy nights in the city, I wanted a totally unobscured sky. I wanted to see more stars than I thought existed. Less than 100 metres from the front door, I crossed a threshold into the kind of darkness that hangs heavy around you. The temperature seemed to drop with each step further into the dewy field.

    It was so dark and still that when I flashed my little light into the open field I caught two elk grazing silently just feet away from me. I stopped in my tracks and swung the light to the left, to the soccer field, uncovering another dozen of them huddled by the goal posts around a full-grown male, antlers upright and stately.

    I set up my blanket against the tree line to give them space and to avoid being trampled. With my light off, there was no sign of the beasts, and they didn’t make a sound. Every now and then, I’d train my light in the direction I’d last seen them only to realize they’d all moved without me noticing, like a game of statues.

    It was 3 a.m. before the shower really began. By then I had drifted off only to be woken up by the loud voices of drunk men arriving to see what they could see. I felt suddenly vulnerable, and curled up even closer to the trees, completely shrouded.

    I could hear them getting closer and closer to me, so I kept my flashlight off and for the first time that night silently berated myself for lying in the middle of a dark field alone at 3 in the morning like an idiot, putting myself at risk.

    While I strained to hear what they were saying, a louder noise came into focus. A lady elk galloped at full speed, bisecting the space between the drunks and me, pushing them away. She came close to my head, which scared the shit out of me, but then she stopped by the buck and grazed as if nothing had happened.

    The sound of their voices grew dim as they backed up, giving the animals some room, following the rules that apply to everyone. I smiled in her direction, and caught my breath. The meteors were starting.