Eye of Newt?

I am rather obsessed with eyes. They don’t always see what they look at, and they don’t always look at what they see. But nevertheless, I think they’re a good idea, even if you never really know what they’re doing -or what they’re seeing. Perhaps we should all be worried about eyes.

Victims think about them a lot; they’ve long known that predators frequently sneak up on them, so there’s not much use only seeing what’s in front. Most susceptible animals have their eyes conveniently located to watch the places where teeth more often attack. Of course, short of adequate CCTV coverage, or a cooperative herd of friends, there are going to be gaps. And, to be fair, predators have to make a living too -but preferably on someone else.

Okay, there are other senses, and they play important roles in protection as well, but for some reason, it’s only eyes that I find intriguing. I’m not sure why, though -my mother could hear me doing things she told me not to, long before she could see me when she burst through the door. As a result, I learned to be really quiet and move something heavy in front of the door. Ears may hear, but it’s eyes that find escape routes.

Still, eyes can’t look everywhere can they? But what if they could -or at least pretend to? I think even my mother would think twice about trying to catch me if she knew I had an extra set of eyes. But, for me, the fun was in the hiding, though. However, I’m not at all sure this is a generalizable conclusion.

But, during a recent perusal of interesting essays, I happened across one that purported to address just such a topic, from some antipodal authors from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. I’m not really sure what I expected, but the fact that it was about stuff going on in Africa -Botswana to be precise- and not in Australia, merely added to the intrigue: https://theconversation.com/lions-are-less-likely-to-attack-cattle-with-eyes-painted-on-their-backsides-142488

As they are quick to point out in their introductory paragraph, ‘The predation of livestock by carnivores, and the retaliatory killing of carnivores as a result, is a major global conservation challenge. Such human-wildlife conflicts are a key driver of  large carnivore declines… While current approaches tend to focus on separating livestock from wild carnivores, for instance through fencing or lethal control, this is not always possible or desirable. Alternative and effective non-lethal tools that protect both large carnivores and livelihoods are urgently needed.’

So, thinking outside of the box -or in this case, the head- they wondered about changing the position of the eyes on the prey. Or, failing that, adding a few. ‘Many big cats – including lions, leopards, and tigers – are ambush predators. This means that they rely on stalking their prey and retaining the element of surprise. In some cases, being seen by their prey can lead them to abandon the hunt.’ And they decided to try it in Botswana’s Okavango delta region -a place, I have to admit, I had never heard of, let alone seen.

Anyway, there, ‘Livestock rub shoulders with lions, leopards, spotted hyaenas, cheetahs, and African wild dogs. To protect the cattle, herds (anything between about six and 100 individual cattle) are kept within predator-proof enclosures overnight. However, they generally graze unattended for most of the day, when the vast majority of predation occurs.’

So, they painted eyes on the rear-ends of some of the cows, and it seemed to work. Of course, being scientists, they couldn’t resist comparing the results with both a control (non-eye) pattern and no pattern. Given they already knew what happens to unpainted cattle, I’m not really sure why they included them in the study; maybe they ran out of paint. Anyway, even painting a cross on some cattle helped decrease predation; they didn’t mention the effects on vampire attacks, however. Still, they must have been thinking of them because they added the caveat that ‘While adding the eye-cow technique to the carnivore-livestock conflict prevention toolbox, we note that no single tool is likely to be a silver bullet.’

For some reason, the rear-eyes remind me of an apocryphal tale my older brother used to tell about himself. He came up with a similar idea when he was a child. He said he enjoyed riding an interurban tram that operated in the Vancouver area years ago. Apparently there was one that travelled as far as New Westminster then, and when he was 9 or 10 years old, he would ride it there, then re-board it for the return trip.

In those days I was only a closely-guarded Winnipeg toddler, and my mother used to farm my brother out for the summers with her parents who lived in Burnaby (near Vancouver). I suspect they were much more lenient with him than our mother, because he was allowed to travel on the Interurban on his own.

My grandfather would give him the exact fare for the trip there and back, but, as my brother tells it, he once used the return fare for some candy and found himself arriving in New Westminster with empty pockets.

Once the tram emptied in New Westminster, the Vancouver-bound passengers would get on board. But as he explained, the route was rather busy that day and so he hid himself behind a seat at the back while the people got off. He realized he had to disguise himself from the conductor to stay on the tram for the return trip, though. The only thing he could think of was to sit looking out the window beside an elderly lady who sat beside him on the seat, put his jacket on backwards, turn his baseball cap around so the peak was low, and pretend he was a different kid just sulking against the window. My brother never did have a particularly clear grasp of the difference between front and back anatomies.

It didn’t fool the old lady, of course, and she shushed the tram conductor when he came around collecting tickets. I think my brother actually believed that he’d fooled them -he still does, in fact. Anyway, he was evidently ahead of his time, and I’m sure if he saw the article, he’d assume that the Botswana eye-cows were probably offshoots of the legend that had grown up around his idea.

I did not write an edifying clarification to the Directors of the Botswana Predator Conservation Society, though -I didn’t think they’d see the humour.


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