Not A Threat

By Cora Tate.

 Some of Rob’s friends, and some of his ex-girlfriends, thought him a little nutty, because he talked to animals—or to ‘non-human animals’ as he would say—and not just to Stella, the orphaned Stellar’s Jay hand-reared by a local family. Walking to or from a neighbour’s or friend’s home, Rob would say, ‘Hello, Phoebe,’ if he saw one of those birds hopping about in a bush, likewise for the thrushes commonly but erroneously called robins, or the flickers and other woodpeckers, the occasional varied thrush, hummingbirds, as well as other families of animals. He probably saved himself from getting sprayed once or twice by greeting a skunk and thereby alerting the mustelid to his presence in advance instead of startling the creature.

The family who raised Stella, and who lived approximately across the river from Rob, might not have been the only ones who didn’t consider Rob a little batty for his—almost always very brief—one-sided conversations with non-human animals, but they would have been in the minority. Most of the time, none of that bothered Rob. He was a scientist by constitution as well as training and never imagined the animals understood him, but he liked them and had a friendly nature.  Also, he had discovered non-human animals tolerated his presence better, if he demonstrated he was not sneaking up on them as their predators would.

 Rob learned that first from the deer. In the year of the awful fires that denuded the hills surrounding the valley that housed Rob’s home and community, the deer had descended to the valley floor to forage because no food remained at higher elevations. One evening, Rob stepped outside to answer nature’s call, and a dozen frightened deer sprang away and raced off across the fields in the darkness. The next evening, before he stepped outside to fetch a gallon of water from his well, he thought, I don’t want to scare those poor, hungry deer again. After thinking about the situation for a moment, he quietly opened the door a tiny crack and called out to the deer in a conversational tone, ‘I’m coming outside, but I’m just going to the well. Don’t worry. I’m not after you.’

 Continuing a monologue he did not expect the deer to understand, he gradually opened the door wide enough to walk slowly outside. The deer stopped foraging for the acorns Rob’s oak trees provided, raised their heads, and watched this intruder—but, as he had hoped, they did not run away. The deer watched him carefully as he walked to the well, used the pitcher-pump to fill his glass gallon jug—re-purposed after transporting sweet cider from a store in town—and then walked back to his cottage carrying on his reassuring soliloquy. He said, ‘Good night. It’s all yours,’ to the deer as he stepped inside and shut the door. After setting the jug on the floor, he quietly climbed the stairs and looked out a second-floor window to see that the deer had resumed foraging.

 That experience didn’t persuade Rob to believe animals—except some humans—understood what he was saying, but did make him think they probably sensed from his behaviour that he was not a predator, was not trying to sneak up on them or catch them. Also, he figured his talking to them did no harm to anyone or anything, so he continued to do so.

 Interactions with animals that also involved other humans did not often turn out as well as the interactions between Rob and non-human animals. One evening while he had company, a bat somehow managed to get inside his house. The little creature flew back and forth, either eating insects or looking for a way to return to the outdoors. Rob’s lady-friend, although not hysterical, seemed distinctly uncomfortable about the bat’s presence. Knowing that bats can act as a rabies vector, the host thought his guest’s concern not unreasonable. To his surprise and disappointment, she seemed horrified when he climbed halfway up a wall—all the while saying things like, ‘Don’t worry little one, I’m not going to hurt you,’ and ‘I’m just going to take you outside,’—and caught the errant bat in a re-purposed plastic food container, then carried it outside and freed it.
‘Why didn’t you just kill it?’
‘Why would I do that?  It didn’t do either of us any harm.’
The evening went downhill from there.

 Later, on a mild winter evening that same year, he needed to retrieve something from his van and employed his by then usual anti-spooking technique.  His path took him alongside his stack of firewood, held up at each end by a young oak tree. On the other side of the stack, a doe foraged for whatever acorns might remain or new shoots might have begun coming up. As Rob approached the stack, the doe lifted her head and watched him as he chatted to her and walked on out to his van. He continued to babble inanities as he grabbed the folder or book or tool or whatever he had gone to fetch and then returned toward his cottage. On his return trip, the doe again raised her head and watched Rob until he reached his door and went back inside.

 He set the materials down and began or resumed working on whatever project had sent him to the van, but stopped to think about the doe. What delighted him in the remembering was that, while a stack of wood stood between them, the doe had stood still only about a yard away from him, less than four feet for sure. She stood ready to bolt but didn’t move away and must have felt some confidence that the man on the other side of the woodpile didn’t want to hurt her. That pleased Rob and, of course, encouraged his monologues.

The following year, when Rob’s friend and former high school classmate Will was visiting from Southern California, a stray cat, young but too big to be considered a kitten, wandered up to Rob’s door and showed no inclination to leave. Both men gave the cat a good deal of friendly attention, but Rob said, ‘We’d better not feed him, or he’ll think this is home,’ so they didn’t.  Junior, as Will named him, seemed to think that spot was home even without being fed.  After their feline guest had been there six days, they decided they’d better feed him and did. A week later, Will headed back south and home, but Junior remained at Rob’s and slept in the shed Rob had built alongside the three-story, three-room house he’d built seven years earlier.

A month or two after Will’s departure, Rob stood outside working on some project or other, probably the small tack and hay barn he was building to house his horse gear, when a large flock of mallards landed at the edge of the little copse of oak, on the side toward the pond, of course.  In his usual friendly way, Rob greeted the birds with, ‘Hello, ducks!  Nice of you to drop in for a visit,’ and more of the same. He had just turned back to his work when Junior proudly trotted up with a duck gripped firmly in his jaws.

 ‘No, Junior! Let that bird go,’ Rob said without a moment’s thought. That outburst startled Junior into releasing the bird, who seemed unharmed and hurried back to its companions. The flock took to the sky a few minutes later, to look, Rob thought, for a pond with no resident cats. Rob squatted and talked to Junior who came over to get petted.  Rob apologized for spoiling Junior’s hunting fun and provided lots of attention and a better-than-average dinner, and the cat seemed happy with the outcome.

Sometime the following year, when the national political situation seemed about as bad as Rob could remember ever having seen it, Junior wandered off, as did Julia, a girlfriend who had done such a thorough job of capturing Rob’s heart that he wondered if he could survive the loss. The grief attendant upon Julia’s departure juxtaposed with the state of U.S. politics propelled Rob into acting on a vague and tentative idea suggested by a conversation with a neighbor and friend a couple of years earlier. Rob spent most of the next year jumping through legal and bureaucratic hoops and emigrated.

 Although loath to leave his horses behind, he recognised the cost of trans-oceanic shipping would take a large bite out of the funds he needed to use for the purchase of a place to live. Accordingly, he persuaded the friends who had helped him find and purchase his current mare to board her and her son and arrange their sale.  He put his property on the market, bought an airline ticket, said a painful farewell to his horses, and, with several hundred dollars worth of excess baggage and several crates shipped separately, flew to Australia.

 Remembering the many hours he had spent each year splitting firewood to get through the winter, Rob began his Australian residence in the tropics, in a region called Far North Queensland—a name Rob thought strange, because Queensland continues another 500 miles further north. Less than a week on that tropical coast convinced Rob he didn’t want to live there, so he rented a small rural cottage inland on a farm on what people called the Atherton Tablelands, although that, too, seemed a misnomer, because the region people referred to by that name included also the Evelyn Tablelands and the Tumoulin-Ravenshoe Highlands and the savannah surrounding the town of Mareeba.

 With cooler nights and drier days, the Tablelands left Rob more physically comfortable. The reduction in traffic and congestion left him less stressed. The rural lifestyle, more like what he was used to before emigrating, left him more socially comfortable as well.

Rob’s change of location did not effect any change in his practice of talking to the non-human animals he encountered. As on the other side of the Pacific, some of his neighbours—except now they were neighbours—thought he was a little nutty; some thought, That must be an American thing; and some thought, Why not? Each morning and evening, he would greet the kookaburras wake-up call and evening guffaw with, ‘Good morning, Kookas,’ or ‘Good night, Kookas.  Sleep well,’ as appropriate. As on the opposite side of the planet’s largest ocean, some of his girlfriends thought he was as kooka as the burras.

A few months after his arrival in FNQ—also called TNQ, for Tropical North Queensland—Rob returned to the coast for a weekend of music. He stayed at a holiday park, which he might have called a campground in North America, that housed tourists and other short-term guests like him as well as some long-term residents.  Rob found the park and nearby traffic rather noisy after his quiet rural retreat, but tolerated the noise and comforted himself with the thought that he had to endure it only through the weekend.

Early in his second evening at the park, dusk had just arrived as he stepped out of his cabin to head to the showers and get ready for an evening’s music.  Before he had taken five steps, a dozen or more of the large fruit bats called flying foxes alighted in the park’s trees to begin their night’s foraging. Ten more steps brought Rob almost to a tree beside the walkway between cabins that led to the shower block, when a cat appeared from behind the tree and leapt amazingly high to grab a flying fox off the tree’s trunk.  As he had with Junior a year or two earlier, Rob reacted without thinking.  He clapped his hands and hissed at the cat, which dropped off the tree’s trunk and vanished into the shrubbery. The flying fox managed to launch itself into the air and fly to safety higher up in another tree, and Rob continued to the showers and his ablutions.

The following week, Rob signed and initialled the contract and paid the balance to complete the purchase of a place of his own, several acres with a larger but older—and some might say ‘quaint’—house and in a quieter location. The new place meant a longer drive to go shopping in town, but Rob felt that was a good trade-off for the peace and quiet and the beautiful native forest—which, he learned, in Australia was called ‘native bush’.

Pleased to be again living on his own property, he continued talking to the non-human animals that shared his land.  He even talked to the butterflies and the skinks and the geckoes, although his soliloquies seemed to have little effect on their behaviour. He routinely apologized to the little lizards for scaring them as he came and went, but they seemed just as frightened for all that.  The macropods, on the other hand, seemed to respond more like the deer had in North America. When Rob warned them of his presence before swinging a door open, the kangaroos, wallabies, potoroos, pademelons, bettongs, and occasional wallaroos would watch him and not, or at least not always, hop quickly away.

 He thought, Over time, they’ll prob’ly come to realise I’m not a threat, and hoped the passing weeks and months would prove his supposition correct.  The three species he saw most often were the big grey kangaroos—including one male taller than Rob’s five-foot-eleven-inch height—the agile wallabies, and the common wallaroo.  The big greys seemed the quickest to recognise that they didn’t need to flee, when Rob spoke to them. Like the deer, they would stop feeding and watch him but did not hop away unless he had to walk in their direction and got too close to them.

 When Rob had lived in his own place for almost a year, he finally completed a much-needed verandah across the front of the house, about which he felt quite good.  He enjoyed the feeling of a job well done, but also felt good because he would no longer have to disrupt the lives of the local macropods with his hammering and sawing. At about that same time, he found himself making the hour’s drive to Atherton more often in order to spend time with Stephanie, a woman whose friendship he had enjoyed for more than six months. In recent weeks, their relationship had grown more intense and more intimate, emotionally and otherwise, to Rob’s delight.

The week after he finished the new verandah, Stephanie accepted Rob’s invitation to spend the weekend at his abode.  On the Friday evening, neither had occasion to go outside—they kept each other well occupied in the house. Mid-way through Saturday morning, Rob stepped outside to void his bladder but first called out, ‘I’m coming outside, but don’t worry. It’s just me. I’m not after you.’ A family of big greys about halfway to the neighbours’ fence sat up and watched him until he went back inside.

When he returned to the bedroom, Stephanie asked, ‘Why do you do that?’
‘Go outside to pee?  ’Cause I think peeing in a perfectly good bowl of water is madness.  It—’
‘No, no.  I get that.  I remember overhearing you say something about that to one of your music colleagues in Yungaburra a couple of months ago, and I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s spot on.  That has to be one of the craziest things our culture does.’ But I meant, call out to the ’roos.  Why were you talking to them?’
‘As long as I’m talking to them, they know I’m not trying to sneak up on them. So, they don’t have to run away.’
‘Hop away.’
‘Well, yes: flee.’
‘Yes.  But what difference does it make if they flee?’
‘I just don’t like to disturb them if I don’t have to.  I mean, they were here before I was, for goodness’ sake.’
‘Except the joeys.’
‘Yeah, at least the one in the pouch. I think the other one was here with them, maybe in the pouch when I first got here. But not only as individuals—as a species, they were here before we were. What right do I have to disrupt their lives? I just avoid disturbing them when I can. Sometimes I can’t help it, but it’s easy enough to let them know I’m coming outside, so they don’t have to be afraid.’

 Stephanie surprised Rob, who was used to hearing, ‘That’s silly,’ or ‘That’s stupid,’ or worse, by saying, ‘Aww, that’s really sweet.’ She paused only a moment and added, ‘You’re really sweet.’
‘True, I am,’ Rob replied with a grin.
His guest giggled and said, ‘You aren’t supposed to tell people. You’re supposed to let them figure it out for themselves.’
‘You just did. You said so.’
Stephanie laughed out loud and said, ‘Yes, I did,’ and added, ‘and they didn’t run away.’
‘Were you watching?’
‘Unh huh.’
‘Them or me?’
She grinned and said, ‘Both,’ then put her arms around Rob’s neck and pulled him to her.  That interrupted their conversation and led to other activities which kept them occupied into the early afternoon.


All that occurred more than four years ago. Stephanie moved in with Rob about three months later, and they wed about six months after that.  Like her husband, Stephanie now routinely warns the macropods and the curlews before stepping outside. The wallaroos and wallabies rarely flee when warned, and even the bettongs and pademelons move only one or two short hops.  The big greys, except for the mothers with joeys in their pouches, will tolerate either Rob or Stephanie within five or six feet as long as they’re talking and not looking directly at the kangaroos.  While neither the human nor the non-human animals have any guarantee of living happily ever after, both macropods and humans seem content, healthy, and safe for the time being.




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