March 21, 2004

"No, I want to see a wild squirrel."

It's hard not to be excited about the wildlife here in Australia -- it's all so new and different. Lots of things that hop. Lots of things that carry their babies in little built-in pouches. Things that glide between trees. All manner of things that go bump in the night because they've come to feel that nocturnal's the way to go. Those sorts of things.

I often get pretty, er, enthusiastic. Every trip into any sort of wilderness means an opportunity to see an animal that, to me, at least, is still pretty novel. Now, I want to emphasize an important part of that last sentence: "to me, at least." It took me a while to catch on to that.

I should have realized it straight off, of course. Take the kangaroo, for instance, my number one obsession. The kangaroo is iconic for good reason. There are estimated to be between 50 and 100 million kangaroos in Australia. That's a whole lotta macropod. Leave the city and you can't help but see a kangaroo, if you put in a little effort. Lounging kangaroos, bouncing kangaroos, grazing kangaroos, golfing kangaroos -- you name it, they've got it.

So you can imagine that many Australians are rather blasé and nonplussed about the whole affair. Kangaroos? Been there, done that, got the "kangaroo crossing" road sign souvenir. Kangaroos? A dime a dozen. Kangaroos? Serve me up a nice little BBQed kangaroo fillet.

You tend to realize all of this when -- perpetually wide-eyed -- you ask "Where can I see some kangaroos?" a lot. Australians are a friendly bunch, so you typically get a helpful and friendly answer. Especially because you're usually asking this of park rangers and their ilk. But you can occasionally see that they're dying to respond: "What are you talking about? They're everywhere! We're practically surrounded! I've tripped over six of them in the time that it took me to answer your question!"

Now the real kicker is how I want to see kangaroos. I want to see them in the wild, because that's my idealized vision of where kangaroos ought to be hanging out. Not that there aren't wild kangaroos traipsing across the outback, of course. But the kangaroos really like what the humans have done with the place, if you will, with the place being the outer fringes of Australia. They like their outback motel lawns. They like their National Park Visitors Centre parking lots. They like their well-manicured golf courses. It's easy to see kangaroos in these places, but no! I want to see wild kangaroos. The kind that are harder to see. I want my kangaroos bouncing on wild grasses, not concrete and astroturf.

The slight absurdity of my expectations were crystallized in my mind during one of those "Oh dear" moments. Put yourself in the other fellow's shoes, I had thought. Try to imagine what it's like. So here it is. Imagine if a visiting Australian came up to you in, say, Ottawa and asked to see a squirrel. "Look outside the window," you might suggest, "there's five of the little buggers on the lawn right now." "But I want to see a wild squirrel," your guest might implore you. "Why?" you reply. "You don't like the one ravaging the bird feeder in our backyard?" "But it's not wild. I want to see them in their natural habitat," comes the response. You eye the squirrel out the window, sizing it up. It's certainly acting wildly, and it certainly looks like it's right at home in this habitat. But you give in and offer to take your guest to see moderately wild squirrels in nearby Gatineau Park.

I'm exaggerating to make the point, of course. Canada's squirrels (and raccoons and groundhogs and such) are more like Australia's possums or rabbits or the famous deer in Nara, Japan. They're fully urbanized and often semi-tame. Australia's kangaroos, while enormously populous, are, generally speaking, more like Canada's deer or, in the right neck of the woods, bears. They don't really come into the cities except, I am told, in Canberra (Canberra, here I come.) And, to be fair, Australians of course understand others' -- and in so many cases, of course, even their own -- fascination with their fauna.

Nonetheless, gaining some perspective on the way in which you're approaching something that is new and exciting to you but commonplace to others can be entertaining. Context is everything. Our friend in the Visitors Centre in Grampians National Park was as unimpressed with his cockatoos as we might be with robins or chickadees.

Of course, much more embarassing than asking a ranger about where to see wildlife is trying to tell a ranger where to see wildlife. On Phillip Island, Miriam and I visited a koala sanctuary. On the way out of the "treetop boardwalk," a man approaching us in a small crowd asked if we'd seen the koala in a tree a short ways behind him. "No," I replied enthusiastically, "but the ones in the treetops have babies!" The man seemed slightly bewildered but thanked me nonetheless. As we passed on, Miriam informed that I had just told a koala ranger about his koala's little joeys. He had been giving a tour, while my brain had apparently been on tour in the outer reaches of the solar system. Poor bugger. I probably gave away the best part of his tour. At least he got to see a tourist in the wild.

Posted by anatole at March 21, 2004 11:46 PM