I’ve learned so much about animals this summer that I am now a fully-fledged expert. The internet is great at enabling a person to become an instant one of these, ready to argue with people who have clearly wasted their time studying their subject for decades.
Who needs experts on animal care or anything else when they could have people like me? I expect Mary Beard says similar whenever some random person thinks they know more about racial diversity in Roman Britain than she, a mere professor, does.
My expertise is varied.
An obsession with the webcam set up by an American zoo to document April the giraffe’s pregnancy and birth led me to research what might happen should a giraffe require a caesarean because loads of other people online were pontificating about this and I wanted to be the most right of them all. I can now say that I feel fully competent to perform induction of anaesthesia on one of these creatures should this ever be required; just give me the drugs, a bicycle pump and a five metre garden hose and I’ll be there.
I have also become an expert in the theory of sheep husbandry after reading that if you spot a sheep laying on its back, it must immediately be returned to an upright position to prevent it from blowing up with gas and exploding. (I might have made that last bit up.) To this end, on country drives, my husband is asked to take it really slow so I can closely monitor the fields for moribund sheep. I cannot overstate how disappointed I am to find that the sheep of Suffolk seem to be quite together when it comes to the art of remaining on four legs.
The study of How Bears Eat People is another of my specialist areas, borne out of a love of books about Alaska. I’ve always wanted to visit this state so for years now I have bought any book I can find along the lines of ‘I went to Alaska, built a cabin and nearly died from bears/snow/falling in a crevasse/eating too much fish but here I am writing this book about it’. I was so sure I could conquer an Alaskan winter despite not owning a single pair of sensible shoes or Gore-Tex clothing until one particular writer crushed my dreams.
Apparently (and I have not checked this information because I am an internet expert and I do not need sources), when a bear is hungry and decides to eat a human it doesn’t bother dispatching them first with a blow to the head. (Bears would not qualify for Red Tractor certification.) Instead, the bear starts off by eating your buttocks. While you are alive. This frightened me because evidently it would be a long time before I succumbed and the bear might become too full before it got to eating the bits of me which would bring about a swifter death.
So you can imagine my reaction during Alaska Live on BBC as the presenters, Steve Backshall, Matt Baker and Liz Bonnin stood in the same river as many bears but made the basic error of keeping their backs and buttocks to them. This must be like waving steak at a Labrador. Yes, salmon is filled with the fat bears need to maintain hibernation allowing the people of Alaska some respite from being stalked every time they pop out to the local Spar* (*insert Alaskan equivalent) but it can get a bit tedious. It’s a shame the BBC did not consult with me instead of the people who live there who clearly do not understand bear behaviour and diet in the way I do.
It can be hard not to be envious of people who live in the great Alaskan wilderness where hugely impressive animals roam glaciated valleys, forests, and aren’t shy of venturing into towns, too. Author Heather Lendes has written about seeing golden eagles feasting on a dead cat near her house in the panhandle town of Haines. A Juneau-based friend of mine had to call the rangers in when a moose gave birth in her garden and wouldn’t let her out the front door. Mum and calf were sedated and airlifted out in a net.
Yet the sight of what looked like an albino slug sliming along a track at Lackford Lakes nature reserve genuinely thrilled me. A group of adolescent coal tits, whose squabbles make them the avian equivalent of the Gallagher brothers, feed in our garden and each visit feels like a benediction. Someone once said that ‘the only proper response to the world is applause’ and this applies to all creatures great and small. So I’m off to become a slug expert so I can argue with the real ones on Twitter.
-- Follow Nicola on Twitter: nicmillerstale