You may know the term “The Zebra effect”? If not, in a few words, it’s the effect zebras use against a predator hunting them. They gather in a flock, and thus their stripes reportedly confuse the predator. It has probably also something to do with the fact that they might feel more secure as a group, as well as the risk of being caught by the predator will also be reduced, the more zebras are together.
To return to my own experience, Freya and I traveled to the United States in 2012. We would visit Yellowstone National Park to experience the stunning scenery and watch the abundant wildlife.
When we arrived at Yellowstone, we got some brochures about how we should behave in the park and the distances we had to keep the animals. We could read that we should keep a minimum distance of 90 meters (100 yards) to bears and wolves, and at least 23 meters (25 yards) to other animals. We even talked about that it sounded very reasonable, since we are visiting the National Park on the animals’ premises.
We went for a walk to see if we could see some of the more “exotic” animals – Freya would very much like to see wolves and I would like to see bears. After a few hours where we saw lots of deer, bison and birds, we discovered a lot of cars that were parked on the roadside and lots of people swarmed around. We slowed down and tried to see what happened.
And there it stood: a big black bear! It was probably 75-100 meters away, so we could get out of the car and take some pictures of it. Just like everyone else does. We parked the car and crossed the road. We found a tree to sit at, so we had a base and a fixed point – you never know what could happen. The bear was rummaging in the ground and looked up from time to time at the crowd, which by now had gathered. There was probably a 50-60 persons who both filmed and took pictures. I thought, unconsciously, when we were so many who did the same, so it could not be dangerous, right?
The bear moved quietly in our direction, but I felt there was nothing to be afraid of. I sat close to the tree with my camera and there were plenty of other people around me. After a few minutes, a doubt began shaping up in the back of the head, but I ignored it. I concentrated on taking pictures of the black bear and enjoy the sight of it.
I suddenly noticed that I was not zoomed in on the bear, but had been forced to zoom out! I looked over the top of the camera, instead of through the viewfinder, and there he stood. Only 15-20 meters from us. Gosh, it was way, way too close. I whispered to Freya, who stood and looked fascinated at the bear, we had better move because he was a bit too close for my taste. It was as if we both woke up and got to sanity. We started to move, crossed the road and walked toward the car, while we still looked at the bear. Suddenly the other spectators also got busy. There was some Park Rangers racing with their bears spray drawn, and herding the people away. It was obvious that they were not in a good mood because we were all too close to the bear.
We sat in the car and looked at each other. We were both very grateful that we got to see a bear so close, but was also aware that we let ourselves go with the herd mentality. We agreed that we would not do that again, but we should be more aware of what we actually were doing instead of just mindlessly following the herd and act like them.
A few days later we went for a drive around the National Park, and met a grizzly bear with her 2 cubs. We were both aware that it could be dangerous if she felt threatened because of her cubs, but she was probably a good 300-400 meters away so we would probably not pose any danger to her cubs.
We enjoyed the sight of her and the cubs, and decided to drive on. When we sat in the car, we could see that she and the cubs ran parallel to us in the same direction as we drove. We decided to pull over a few hundred yards ahead, and another couple had the same idea. We took our bear spray with, just for safety’s sake, and moved a short distance into the terrain, using a small path. A little while later the American pair asked us whether we should try to go further into the terrain. I told them that we had better stay here, because we could not see the mother bear and her cubs, as there was a hill in front of us. I did not want to reach the same top as her – at the same time.
Shortly after, the mother bear appeared on the hilltop. Good idea to stay put. They all stopped and looked at us. The distance was approx. 100 meters, but it felt much more intensely because we were only 4 people up here. The cubs played around in the snow, while the mother looked watchfully at us. Although the distance was more than 5 times as great as in our meeting with the Black bear 2 days earlier, it was a radically different experience, because we could not hide in the crowd. Now, the chance that one of us could get in trouble with the bear was suddenly much larger, and it made a huge difference. We were very quiet and humble, especially when we compared it to our behavior just 2 days earlier.
After a while we slowly stood up and began to move away from the mother bear and her two cubs. As we approached the cars, we saw a large crowd of people standing together farther away, looking at the bear and the 2 cubs. Now I really could see how the zebra effect affects people. They were totally in their own world, talking loudly and waving to other cars, showing them what they were looking at. It was clear that they didn’t feel threatened by the bear at all, for they are all in a large crowd, and therefore feels secure.
The fact that I have behaved as a zebra in the herd facing a predator, has put a lot of thoughts through my mind. It is true that the chance that I as an individual running into difficulties with a predator, is less when I’m standing in a crowd, for there are more people to choose from. But the threat or danger was not changed. If the bear or another animal felt threatened it would attack us no matter what. But when you stand in a crowd, it just don’t feel so dangerous, because everyone else behaves the same way as me. I could really feel the difference when we were only 4 persons compared to 50-60 persons.
It is something I will remember for the future as we move around in nature. No matter how safe you feel in a crowd, the danger is still present and because others might ignore it, I will try not to ignore it in the future.