OPINION — ‘Did you know if you hold an ermine up to your ear, you can hear what it’s like to be attacked by an ermine?’

The National Park Service has a Twitter account, where they post interesting facts and great advice about the flora and fauna found in our national parks. Lately NPS has decided to make things a little more interesting, turning a semi-boring Twitter feed into an entertaining scroll full of semi-funny, while still informative, data, punctuated with nice photos of the parks. The opening line of this column is one example of their Captain Obvious wit.

But it’s not obvious to most of the city folks who flock to the parks every year. Your average Joe from Cleveland or Chicago or Bakersfield has no idea that an ermine, while cute as the dickens, can rip your face off in 2.3 seconds, while your brain tries to move its concept of ‘ermine’ from the ‘furry kitty cat’ section over into the ‘tiny, constipated bobcat with anger issues and a blow torch’ section. By the time your brain catches up it’s too late. For your face.

While the urbanites love to ogle at the critters, we know they’re clueless because so many of them end up in emergency rooms every year. Yellowstone has signs every few feet warning people not to get too close to the fluffy cows, but once they get into the park the Einsteins notice how docile those bison look, and a selfie or two couldn’t hurt, they’re just standing there, I’ll just get a few steps closer, maybe reach out and give this one a tap on the horn there, he won’t mind, he’s just eating grass, not paying me any attention at all, and the next thing you know the city slicker gets pitched into Idaho.

Here's your sign...

Here's your sign...

Which is why one of the NPS tweets says, ‘What do you get when you cross an elk with a bison? Hurt. You get hurt.’ Because elk are dangerous, too. Of course they don’t look it, standing there all majestic and aloof, ignoring the yahoos taking pictures. They keep ignoring right up until they stop, and you never know when that’s going to be. And those elk antlers look longer and sharper the closer they get to your personal anatomy. It’s like they’re, I don’t know, antlers or something.

And the problem is not just that city slickers don’t know anything about critters, although that’s most of it. The rest is that the animals in parks are habituated to humans. They see people all the time. They’re never hunted or even viciously harassed. They learn faster than people do, and it doesn’t take them long to figure out there’s no threat from the knuckleheads in funny clothes from Abercrombie & Filth. So they ignore the yahoos until the yahoos invade their space, and then they respond with vigor and extreme power. Because they’re wild animals, and that’s what wild animals do.

And although you’d think bears would be a bigger problem than elk and bison in our national parks, they’re usually not. Bears are dangerous, of course, Yogi notwithstanding, and they get habituated to people just as other animals do. But most people, even city slickers, usually have at least a basic concept of what bears are capable of. Especially if they saw The Revenant. Leonardo DiCaprio almost ended up being Leonardo Decapitated in that one. Nobody wants to get mauled by a bear.

the author atop a giant wooden buffalo

The author atop a giant wooden buffalo

But even though most folks show the bears a little more respect, there are still problems with them because, unlike elk and bison, bears like people food. Even bears that aren’t accustomed to humans visit campgrounds to eat what they can find in vehicles, coolers, and sleeping bags. And dumpsters are a huge attractant, despite attempts to build them so bears can’t get into them. And if you’ve ever stayed in a national park campground, you know how complicated those bear-proof lids can me. It’s not uncommon to see several adults in Bermuda shorts and Crocs standing around one, holding bags of trash, scratching their heads and frowning sadly.

I don’t know who designs the lids on park dumpsters, but I wouldn’t want to play chess with them. Even so, bears still figure out how to get into them sometimes. A Yosemite park ranger was once asked why it was so difficult to design a dumpster lid that people could get into, but was actually bear-proof. He said, ‘There is considerable overlap between the intelligence of the smartest bears and the dumbest tourists.’ Which is not really much of a surprise. I’ve met a lot of tourists.

Spring is just around the corner, and our national parks will be filling up with people from all over the world who have come to enjoy nature, clog the restrooms, and stand dangerously close to the wildlife. If you plan to be one of those people, I recommend checking out the NPS Twitter account and following their advice, including the tweet that says, ‘If you come across a bear, never push a slower friend down.’

I agree completely with that one. We need to be compassionate, caring, and helpful to those around us. Pushing a slower friend down during a bear attack would be a heinous, unforgivable act. No one but a despicable fiend would ever think of doing such a thing.

But then, if the friend is slower than you, you don’t have to . . .

Kendal Hemphill is an outdoor humor columnist and minister who always hikes with slow friends. Write to him at [email protected]

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