Ask a Scientist: : Why we need to rethink the ‘if they wouldn’t like it, they would’ve left’ - mentality


Surrounding ourselves with nature has immense benefits for our wellbeing. So it is unsurprising people seek the company of wild, charismatic wildlife. Getting affected emotionally by the presence of marine mammals and sharks is a primary motivation for many. This can result in a blissful feeling of joy or even thrill.

But speaking of influence, everything we do with and around wild animals, is, to a certain extent, affecting them, too. Even if it’s only for a limited amount of time. These impacts are not always imminently visible, especially for people with little experience with wildlife.

In social science, when we’re out and about to ask folks about their experiences with wild animals and their perceptions on those encounters to learn more about the human-animal relationship, a typical response is ‘if they wouldn’t like it, they would’ve left’ - assuming that we know precisely how animals feel about us encroaching on their personal space.

This perception is often a result of a poor understanding of animal behaviour, paired with a dose of anthropomorphisation, that is, projecting our human wants and needs onto other life forms. If we feel disturbed, we move somewhere else, right? However, we also know that this is not always a possibility.

Imagine a packed lounge area at the airport. You’ve been running around all day, and you’re lucky to be sitting in one of those massage chairs next to an outlet, when a group of people appears with a portable loudspeaker, playing ‘Despacito’ on loop while you need to finish some work. Would you move to one of those uncomfortable bar stools instead? Or do you adapt to your surroundings by grabbing your noise-cancelling headphones?

While the assumption our needs are the same as those of wild animals can be problematic, it can help to work some empathy and to put ourselves in wildlife’s ‘shoes’. How would I feel about being followed by a random dude? How would I react when someone would touch me without my consent?

Impacts are also not always noticeable to wildlife enthusiasts because the interaction with wildlife may have affected their very invisible energy budgets. Just like humans, animals need energy obtained from food that drives all life processes such as growth, reproduction, hunting or outsmarting predators. While wildlife interacts with us, it spends its energy on this very encounter. A little, when it’s two minutes, a whole lot, when it’s two hours. This energy is lost to fight infections, nurturing offspring or escaping a predator. So while we are back home, preparing our next Instagram post about this ‘life-changing’ animal encounter, this animal may be in trouble.

To manage this impact, best practice regulations in commercial ventures include a timeframe for how long you are allowed to stay and interact with an animal. This is also regardless of how interactive or inquisitive an animal seems to be. Generally, this is communicated by your operator at the beginning of the experience. If the time is up, you have to get out of the water, and the vessel has to take off – Stop at the top!

However, it is often argued that such rules do not apply when it is on the animal’s terms, sometimes resulting in interaction times of several hours. While people are getting a real run for their money, this may have detrimental impacts on the individual animals involved, as discussed earlier.

Again, it is crucial to remember that such rules are in place not to cut the fun, but to protect wild animals from harm. We cannot expect people to know this, which is why professionals need to communicate potential impacts on wildlife with their guests (and the good ones in the industry will!).

Respectful human-wildlife encounters always leave the extent of the interaction to the animal(s) involved. However, it is sometimes on us to call it a day so wildlife can go back being wild by taking a rest, looking for a snack or socialising with their mates, so our footprint remains small.