Snake food: Humans as prey

The sound was quiet, but close: a rustle in the leaves a few feet from the hiking trail.

Curious, I peered under the ferns and caught sight of a garter snake. Then I saw what it was up to.

Not one of Mr. Frog’s better days.

The image of the amphibian in that reptile’s maw reminds me of the gargantuan snakeskin my father had when I was a boy. He had inherited it from some great-aunt who had traveled overseas. I suspect it was a reticulated python.

Now and then, I would take it out of the closet and unfurl it, fold by fold, until I had the entire skin—some twelve to fifteen inches wide and twenty-plus feet long—stretched across the ground. The desiccated skull, still attached, smelled faintly of stale decay.

I was fascinated by the sheer size of the thing.

I knew that snakes this large could eat pigs. Why not a small boy?

Examining that snakeskin was one of my earliest encounters with the idea of humans as potential prey. Not just creatures inevitably recycled in the web of life, as I touched on in one of my first blog posts, but creatures potentially hunted and eaten. For most of the last hundred millennia, Homo sapiens devoted a good deal of attention to avoiding other predators. In some parts of the world, we still have to be careful.

As a hunter, I wonder: What would it be like to end as prey?

That depends, I suppose, on how swiftly the predator accomplishes its lethal aim. The frog in the photo looks calm enough, but I don’t relish the thought of death by digestion. Faster than cancer, to be sure, but not exactly appealing.

Death by grizzly, though? Or by cougar? Given the option, those are tickets I might take.

© 2010 Tovar Cerulli


  1. Oh, HELL no – I’d rather be shot by a gun-wielding predator than taken by any of the grisly methods our fellow animals employ. Digestion, strangulation, evisceration? No thanks.

    • Tovar says:

      How did I know someone was going to say that? 😉

      In his book Bloodties, Ted Kerasote—considering a Buddhist teacher’s assertion that he will be reincarnated as every creature he has ever killed—imagines being an elk struck by a bullet, a trout yanked from the water, a goose shot out of the sky. “I think I could do it,” he writes. “Such karma seems no worse than being struck by lightning in the Tetons, and far better than being bumped off for my billfold in L.A.”

      No, evisceration doesn’t appeal to me either. Python constriction might not be too bad. From a grizzly, I’d prefer a well-aimed paw swipe.

  2. Well Tovar,
    You really do come up with the most interesting things to mull over in those quieter moments when I’m trying to relax! Norcal’s idea is fine in a fashion but I’d not like to give a person who’d kill for pleasure (one look and I assure you they wouldn’t be shooting me for food!) the pleasure if you get my gist. I guess for me if not in my sleep then by the teeth of an Orca as long as the bugger didn’t play with his food for too long.
    Best regards,

    • Tovar says:

      Happy to oblige, John!

      I’d really prefer going in my sleep, too. We modern humans have gotten awfully attached to such peaceful passings, haven’t we? If we restrict ourselves to the more common kinds of final exit typically available in nature, I guess it’ll have to be the orca for you, cider or no cider.

  3. Ingrid says:

    Kerasote is not taking into consideration the stress and fear of being chased and then being killed, at the mercy of another’s hand, another wielding power over you as you die. So I would disagree with his assessment that being prey is no worse than other forms of death. Horror flicks certainly have that particular model mastered. The terror of the pursuit is matched only by the torment as the predator/killer drives in the knife.

    How many humans, do you suppose, would hunt other animals if they had to make a deal that in the end, they, themselves, would be prey in the same fashion as their own prey? That at any time, at an unknown moment, by gun, bow, knife or hook, on the streets where they live or in their homes? It may seem a ludicrous hypothetical. But I think that’s a more accurate comparison upon which to base one’s idea of how comfortable one might be as “prey.”

    (I know it could be argued that we all live by the terms of a cosmic crap shoot. But, for the most part, people have an expectation of “normal” death, even if it is misguided. And most people are not being actively pursued by predators as part of their existence.)

    * I once heard a noted herpetologist describe being bitten by a neurotoxic snake. He described a feeling of being totally high as the neurotoxin traveled through his system. I always hope this is true of the prey in the case of neurotoxic venom, at least.

    • Tovar says:

      Interesting question. There are, of course, different elements to “being prey.” For an animal like deer, there’s day-to-day existence, including wariness and keeping an eye on predators even when they aren’t actually hunting you. Then there are the occasional times when you are being actively hunted: catching sight or scent of predators and eluding them, or high-tailing it when they’re at your heels. And then there’s getting killed and eaten.

      In the particular hunting examples used by Kerasote—an elk struck by a well-placed 30-06 bullet, and a goose solidly hit by a load of shot from a 10 gauge—there is no actual chase, just day-to-day existence, then sudden impact and oblivion.

      I guess the answer to your question depends on the hunter, and the phrasing. How many hunters would be willing to return to the day-to-day existence of a prey animal? What about being actively hunted or chased? Or killed and eaten? What if hunting guaranteed you’d be taken by a grizzly or a well-placed bullet, and would never have to suffer through a terminal, debilitating illness?

      This could get awfully existential: How many people would choose to eat (or garden, or be born in the first place) if they understood what Barry Lopez called “the horror inherent in all life,” and had to make a deal to endure the kind of harm that their eating (or gardening, or mere living) would inflict on other lives?

      By the way, have you by chance read the essay “Being Prey,” by the late environmental philosopher Val Plumwood, about the crocodile attack she (barely) survived? It’s a complex and insightful piece. Among other things, she examines our resistance to accepting that we are part of the food web.

      Toward the end, she makes this statement, with which I wholeheartedly agree, except that I’m no longer a vegetarian: “Reflection has persuaded me that not just humans but any creature can make the same claim to be more than just food. We are edible, but we are also much more than edible. Respectful, ecological eating must recognize both of these things. I was a vegetarian at the time of my encounter with the crocodile, and remain one today. This is not because I think predation itself is demonic and impure, but because I object to the reduction of animal lives in factory farming systems that treat them as living meat.”

  4. Arthur says:

    I’m with Norcal on this one – I wouldn’t choose any of the methods preferred by our fellow animals. They all sound just nasty, and way too slow.

  5. Casey Harn says:

    As a person with a healthy dose of paranoia, I have considered this before!

    I am aware that I have chased prey, but I’m absolutely sure I would hate it if I knew I was being stalked by a grizzly or a big cat and I was unarmed. Would having crappy pants turn them off? I doubt it!! Being aware of being mauled seems like it would suck. Might be quick, though.

    I do not want to be engulfed alive by a fish, either, to be aware that I am sliding down into their gullet, waiting for suffocation.

    I could live(?) with getting totally high by a neurotoxin before I die, but I’m pretty sure other types of poison would make for a slow, painful death.

    And having a “hunter’s instinct,” I know in the big scheme, I am prey. To Nature. This would be my first choice, as I’m used to it. Second, a vicious grizzly attack that I had no idea was coming.

    Really wouldn’t mind that gettin’ high, though.

    • Tovar says:

      Here, above, and below, I believe we have established a common preference for chemical assistance, be it in the form of cider, hallucinogenics, lethal injection, or neurotoxic venom!

  6. OK, I’ll add intoxicating snake venom to my list of preferred ways of being prey. Sounds better than a gun.

    And, frankly, I think death by predation, even the horrifiying ones we’ve considered here, still beats cancer. And I’d take it over Alzheimer’s in a heartbeat. In fact, if I ever get Alzheimers, my beloved has already informed me he wouldn’t shoot me, so perhaps taking myself out into the woods in a lucid moment would be the way to go.

  7. Ingrid says:

    Having nearly crossed death’s threshold through a few different pathways, the only thing I’ve asked my friends is that they score me some good hallucinogens at the end. If I have a choice, I’m going out in a blaze of color. 🙂

    Of course, unless someone has the courage to dump me in the shrubs or shove me in a shallow grave on the back forty, no one’s going to be eating my carcass. So I’m at liberty to be doped up.

    I wish that was a comfort we could offer food animals. Personally, I would not choose for myself, any form of slaughter we reserve for non-humans. Humane euthanasia for humans and non-humans alike I understand, particularly when you consider that euthanasia, from the original Greek, connotes “beautiful death.”

    • Hell, I wish we were as generous to humans with euthanasia as we are with animals. Not that it’s beautiful, but it’s sometimes much better than the alternative.

      • Ingrid says:

        I agree (about the humans). I’ve been tearfully grateful for those times when animals I’ve cared about, personally or peripherally, were eased into sleep by the gentle hand of a compassionate vet. As often as people say they’d like to die in their sleep, I have to believe this would also be the wish of every animal, domestic or wild, if they could articulate these things to us.

    • Tovar says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Melanirae!

      I guess you and Casey would have to duke it out over the pros and cons of being swallowed whole.

      Quite the storm of comments generated by your recent post about Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals!

  8. Bill Koury says:

    Not to get too deep here, but are prey aware that they are going to die? Certainly they know to run from predators, but do they actually “know” why?

    Maybe they don’t actually suffer the “terror” of being run down.

    However, most humans experience the knowledge that they are about to die, they will lose loved ones and go into — (add your own ending here.) -oblivion, heaven, darkness, be born as a piglet, etc.

    • Tovar says:

      Who knows what animals know? Maybe they don’t have an abstract idea of death. But they certainly want to escape and survive. Whether the word “terror” is exactly right I don’t know.

      Given what I’ve read and seen, my inclination is to give animals—deer, for example—the benefit of the doubt, to assume that they experience not only pain but also emotion. When I hunt, if an opportunity to kill comes my way, then my aim is to have the animal die before there is a chance for “terror” or even pain.

  9. Ryan says:

    Living in Colorado there are many backcountry travelers that carry a handgun just in case they come across a mountain lion. I myself sort of think that if a mountain lion jumps out of a tree and latches itself onto my neck, the handgun in my pack probably wont do me much good.

    • Tovar says:

      Come on now, Ryan. All you need to do is ask the cougar to wait a minute while you rummage around in your pack and prepare for the encounter. 😉

  10. Jean says:

    Whenever I would go to the ocean, I am aware that I am no longer the top of the food chain. Especially when I went rockfishing in the 10 ft zodiac type boat by myself.

    There is a section in the book, The Maneaters of Tsavo, where a fellow describes a great sense of peace as he is being tossed like a toy by a lion. In the same book, there is a description of men screaming as a lion licks their skin off before it eats them.

    If I have the misfortune to suffer a violent death, I hope it is reasonably quick and little time goes by before I die. If not, I hope I let them know they were in a fight. Adrenalin or another chemical that the body engages at the same time is a pain suppressant.

    Maybe the descendants of the pigs I’ve hunted will chew on my bones (as not all were young pigs and not all hunted were shot).

    • Tovar says:

      The 10 ft zodiac brings to mind John’s professed preference for orcas above. Though, as Ingrid suggests below, the ocean itself is more likely to take you.

      The first story you mentioned from Maneaters of Tsavo: do you know if that’s the story told by Scottish missionary David Livingstone? Sounds awfully familiar.

      • Jean says:

        The book, The Maneater of Tsavo, is by Lt. Col. J.H. Patterson. It is much more frightening and humbling than the movie (The Ghost and The Darkness) they made after it.

        I do miss my solitary mornings on the ocean. This time of year the pelicans start flying together. Watch the motion of the group as a whole. As they come toward you or fly away from you, it is possible to see where Chinese Dragons come from.

        • Ingrid says:

          Jean, I know what you mean. I spend a lot of time with pelicans, brown and white. And still, I never fail to get a lump in my throat when I see a huge band of those pterodactyl shadows drifting the uplift around the turn of Lands End. My heart is irrevocably entwined with the birds who grace our shores.

  11. Ingrid says:

    In response to comments about how we are not immune from the effects of the food chain, the thing is, it’s rare for us to be prey in that sense. I know we humans like to think we’re as vulnerable to top-level predators, probably in order to view more benevolently our own status as top-level predators. But the truth is, the statistics surrounding predation on humans suggest these possibilities are slim. Remember the old stat, which said you were more likely to be killed by a disgruntled office worker than a shark?

    Working at the wildlife hospital, I’m constantly having to dispel myths about what wild animals will and will not do. (Mostly, in my regular life, I’m imploring people to be kind and respectful, another topic altogether.) My husband and I have been in the outdoors all of our lives, in California, the Northwest, Colorado, overseas — and, for the most part, when we’ve encountered predators, they retreat, especially if you know how to behave. Even rattlesnakes, provided you’ve heard or seen them. Of course, it’s stupid to defy common sense in those situations because any animal can act erratically. But from rattlesnakes to wolves to mountain lions, animals — including the predators we like to label most ferocious — try to avoid encounters with us when possible. Because, in fact, we are the most ferocious.

    I’m not saying that it can’t happen. It does. And I’m not saying that encounters with animals such as mountain lions aren’t increasing, owing to our carving into their habitat. But that increase means numbers like 8 attacks per year instead of 4, and even then dropping in subsequent years. And only a few of those small numbers are fatal attacks.

    I could get into the various reasons animals do attack but I’m sure you’re all well-versed in that. I’m just saying it’s a misnomer to say that we’re as vulnerable in the food chain as other prey, or even as vulnerable as other top-level predators that we, ourselves, kill. (We are, indeed, subject to the dangers of nature’s cycles beyond predation. As Jean suggests, I never underestimate the power of the ocean either. But the currents are more likely to take me than is a sea lion or shark.)

    That being said, I find it beautifully ironic that we, individually, are most often taken down by the smallest organisms — the only ones that can really get us, after we’ve armed ourselves to the teeth with firepower, technology and insulation. And, in the end, it is probably we, ourselves, who will be the ultimate demise of our own species. The situation in the Gulf is one, huge tragic vision of that.

    • Tovar says:

      Quite true. The chances of a modern person falling prey to a large predator are very low.

      Personally, I’m not sure how I’d feel in a landscape inhabited by grizzlies, cougars, alligators, etc. Certainly I feel no fear walking in the Vermont woods, as the local black bears and coyotes hardly ever threaten anyone, let alone do any harm. And cougars, if there are any here, are very few and far between.

      It’s interesting that you say “we humans like to think we’re as vulnerable to top-level predators.” I’ve never noticed that tendency. It seems to me that most people do not even want to think of themselves as mortal and biodegradable, let alone as potential food for a large carnivore.

      We definitely aren’t as vulnerable as other animals. And I don’t see any value in imagining we are in order to think better of ourselves. But I do see value in the humbling reminder that we aren’t invincible, and also in the compassion-building potential of trying to imagine ourselves in the prey position. Though, in the end, microorganisms are far more likely both to kill and to eat us.

      I agree: we do seem to be our own worst enemy. Unfortunately, a lot of other species also suffer as a result of our recklessness.

      • Ingrid says:

        “It’s interesting that you say ‘we humans like to think we’re as vulnerable to top-level predators.’ I’ve never noticed that tendency. It seems to me that most people do not even want to think of themselves as mortal and biodegradable, let alone as potential food for a large carnivore.”

        Yes, you’re right. That comment needs clarification. And I’m also guilty of employing the dreaded “we.” I try not to, but in haste, sometimes I resort.

        What I meant by that was that when it comes to explaining or rationalizing human predation, I often hear that argument — that we’re just as much a part of the food chain, susceptible to the same vagaries as are other animals. I just don’t see it that way, given the massive amounts of insulation and armor we bear to separate ourselves from that very fate.

        So, I actually agree with you, in spite of what seems like an opposing viewpoint. I don’t think humans, in general, want to see themselves as mortal and subject to predation. But I think there’s some doubleplusgood doublespeak when it comes to articulating the opposite.

  12. doug thorburn says:

    Hello Tovar et al., I have been reading with interest the various comments on the topic “humans as prey”, and thought I might have something worthwhile to add.

    I live and work in south-eastern British Columbia. The majority of my work (Forester) finds me wandering the woods on my own, relying on my five senses to keep me out of trouble. My primary concern with my animal neighbors (grizzly bears, black bears, cougars, moose etc..) is not predation, but rather initiating a defensive response in the animal by inadvertently blundering too close to its bedding site, offspring, or food source.

    Considering the amount of time I spend in the woods, it is remarkable how seldom these negative encounters occur. Over the years (approx 30 working and playing in the bush), I have been charged by black bears three times, by a cow moose twice, and once by a wolverine! On two occasions I have been stalked by animals, once by a black bear and once by a cougar. I have no way of knowing the “true intentions” of these animals, but I can say that on both occasions I definitely felt like prey.

    My response to “being prey”, was interesting, and not what I would have expected. Rather than blind terror setting in I went into a place of incredible deep focus, or hyper-awareness. The awareness not only centered on the potential predator, but on the entire environment around me. Swaying grass, distant bird calls, everything was being processed in that “slow motion” realm people often describe during emergencies.

    I managed to extricate myself from both of these situations, thanks in part to the nuanced assessment of my environment. On both occasions I used “bluff and blustering” to convince the bear and cougar that I was more trouble than I was worth! It still amazes me that the animals still fall for this trick of ours. You would think that in all the millenium of contact, word might have gotten out that we are easy pickings.

    • Tovar says:

      Thanks for your comment, Doug.

      I’m intrigued by your description of how, in perceiving yourself as prey, you went to that place of deep focus and hyper-awareness where everything slows down. It reminds me not only, as you say, of emergency situations, but also of the experience of hunting — the intense focus I feel when a deer comes within yards.

      I wonder about predatory encounters between animals. Rather than predators experiencing a state of aggression and prey experiencing a state of terror, do both experience a somehow-similar state of heightened intensity and focus as they play out one dramatic life-and-death moment in an ancient relationship?

      • Doug says:

        Hi Tovar, interesting thoughts. I know what you mean by the deep focus of the final moments of the hunt, as the twigs snap, an animal steps through the trees towards you. I presume it is these few moments of heightened awareness that keeps us “modern” people hooked on the craft of hunting. I would liken it to rock climbing in the combination of intense body awareness, a quiet meditative quality, and the lurking potential for calamity.

        • Tovar says:

          Nicely put, Doug. Though I came to hunting mainly for more food-and-ethics oriented reasons, I can see why people get hooked by the sheer intensity of the activity.

          And, statistically, your analogy to rock-climbing helps explain the overall decline in the number of hunters here in North America: people are still compelled by intense outdoor activities, but many have turned away from hunting, toward climbing, windsurfing, etc.

    • Hello Doug – I recently read your comments about hunting on Tovar’s site. I’m researching a doc on hunting for CBC radio – and would be interested to hear your thoughts, as a fellow Canadian, on a couple of things: 1 – Do you think there are more people out there turning to hunting as adults for reasons to do with ethical eating concerns, wanting to eat a local diet, fair treatment of animals etc? 2 – What are your own reasons for hunting? 3 – In your years as a forrester wandering in the backcountry – have you observed any changes in WHO is out there hunting?

      • Doug Thorburn says:

        Hi Jennifer, I would be happy to attempt an answer to your questions;
        1 – It may be purely anecdotal, but the majority of people I know who are hunting have only started in the last year or two, and are motivated by the combination of healthy food, gathered locally from a wilderness setting. Most of these peole are already active in a number of backcountry recreation activities, and so are confortable in a wilderness setting. I would be curious if this local interest in hunting is also refected in the province/country at large.
        2 – My own reasons for hunting…I enjoy the challenge of gathering food from the local wilderness. I like the idea that no land has been cultivated, no input from human endeavor has gone in to producing the animals and berries that we collect from the local mountain sides. As a new hunter, I am enjoying the learning curve involved in “thinking like an animal”, learning their habits, their movement corridors, where they will typically bed down during the day.
        3 – in my years working in the bush I have encountered surprisingly few hunters. The few I have met are generally quite guarded about what they are doing, I’m guessing because they are secretive about their favourite hunting spots. The exception would be the old guys who have been hunting all their lives, and seem to go hunting as an excuse to get out of the house, and love to stand around chatting about what animals they have seen!

        I look forward to hearing what you come up with. I always enjoy the documentary programs presented on CBC.

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