Saturday, August 13, 2016

Primal Fears

By Karen McCullough

A couple of months ago, my daughter and her three small boys visited from Indiana, staying with us for a couple of weeks. After the novelty of a new set of toys wore off, we looked around for things to do. Fortunately we live in a small city that has a lot of entertainment options for children. We took them to the local children’s museum, to the public library for story hour and to the park down the street.

Two daughters and three sons watching the giant turtles.
Unfortunately I didn't get a picture of the tiger

One of the most successful trips was to the local science center/zoo. The weather co-operated with a warm, sunny day, and the kids had a blast watching monkeys swing from ropes attached to various parts of their habitat, seeing the meerkats as they scampered up and down logs and sandpiles, and viewing some spectacular and impressive birds.

Only one odd incident seemed out of place in the trip. We were walking along the zoo path, approaching the tiger enclosure. One enormous cat prowled gracefully along the edge of the inner fence. He’s a magnificent beast and unquestionably an alpha predator. Even with the double fence I felt a frisson of unease walking past him.

My three-year-old grandson, holding my hand as we ambled by, felt more than that. He let out a sudden shriek, grabbed both my legs, and yelled, “Don’t let the tiger eat me.”

I picked him up and assured him that we – myself, his mother, and his aunt – would not allow the tiger to get near him. He calmed down after that and never said another thing about it, even when we walked back past the tiger compound to return to the main building.

Later I thought more about his reaction. My daughter’s family doesn’t have a television in their house, though the children do watch a few carefully selected programs and movies online.  They read, or have read to them, a lot of books, probably a dozen or more a day. But those are childrens’ books.  How did he recognize the tiger as a fearsome predator that—had he come across it in the wild—might in fact have eaten him?

Admittedly he’s only three and the tiger is much bigger than he is. Its teeth are impressively huge. But the way he reacted seemed to be from something deeper and probably much more primitive than conscious comparison of his size with the tiger’s or even the tiger’s teeth. I suspect it’s the same instinct that makes most of us afraid of snakes and spiders, something baked in our brains from thousands of years of human experience

As a grandmother, I want to protect my grandkids from all the dangers they face. As a writer, though, I want to be able to tap into some of those primal feelings. If I can make the reader that afraid, or just as deeply sad, intensely relieved, or joyously happy, I’ve done my job. There aren’t many books that have brought me to that level, so I know it’s a hard thing to accomplish. But for a writer, it’s a goal worth striving for.


  1. Interesting post, Karen. It reminded me of a time I was at the zoo with just my husband (yes, we still do that). We were watching a huge tiger, who seemed listless, uninterested in the world outside his boundary. Then, suddenly, he became very alert and started pacing near the fence. We could tell that he was watching something behind us so we looked back. There was a little boy running a few yards ahead of his family. It was pretty clear that this child was the cause of the tiger's interest. So, I'd say your grandson's fear was grounded in good instinct.

  2. HI Sandy - You're undoubtedly right! Predators do tend to look for the smaller, weaker members of a group, so it makes sense they'd pay more attention to children.

  3. Primal Instinct is not to be dismissed. We've lost a lot of our instinctual reactions due to civilization and dictates of society, but predators - four-legged and two-legged - depend on our innocence and trusting natures. I have friends who have been seriously injured by their pet cats.