The Things People Fear In the Dark

Nova Scotia is a forest province.  The natural state of the land, with only a few exceptions such as coastal areas, is what is referred to here as Acadian forest–a primeval range of huge old maples, birches, pines, spruces, willows and a variety of other trees.  The forest here is not too different from the forests of northern, westernmost Europe except for some slight variations in plant species, i.e., the Canadian elder which produces red berries and is slightly toxic as opposed to the European elder which produces black, fully edible berries.  And by and large this is a gentle land.  There are no great, dangerous predators in the wilderness.  Other large wild creatures, such as moose, are timid and avoid humans.  There really is nothing dangerous in this forest.  So, it never ceases to amaze me how terrified most Nova Scotians are of their own countryside.

In my work as a therapist, I have heard clients make statements so many times along the lines of: “I would love to get out more, but I live in the country.”  I’ll never forget one young lady in her late teens who was depressed and bored.  She had stated she would like to get out but couldn’t because her family didn’t own a cottage, and I had suggested she and her friends just pitch a tent and camp out.  Her eyes grew wide as saucers.  The prospect of spending a night in the woods, outside the shelter of rigid walls, utterly terrified her.

I wish I could say this bizarre terror of one’s environment was unique to Nova Scotians, but I hear of it more and more from many sources.  People email me to ask how to get their kids off the Play Station and out the door.  People comment on FaceBook that they don’t go hiking because there is no place to hook up their devices.  People plan bike trips according to where they can get cell service and wireless internet.  There has come to be, in this current culture, some bizarre fear of being alone, not being hooked up, and perhaps most of all of the creatures that dwell in the natural world beyond one’s own door.  I’ve always felt this was very odd given that the odds of coming to harm in the human world are literally thousands of times greater than of being harmed by Nature.  For example, since the founding of Canada and the USA, there has been one person killed by wild canids, yet there have been literally tens of thousands killed in towns and cities by automobiles and other machinery and criminals.  And yet, people see the town and car as safe, yet look at the harmless wolf with deep suspicion and fear.

Let’s look at what dwells in the natural world after dark.  What should we fear?  We’ll use as a basis the environment around the upper northeast USA and lower southeast Canada.

The Black Bear

Black bears are one of Nature’s survivors.  They follow diurnal and nocturnal patterns–whichever works best for them.  They will eat anything, from wild honey and berries to a hunted deer, though it’s quite rare a black bear would take a deer.  The are large, powerful animals and can weigh several hundred pounds, but despite their size are quite capable of climbing trees.  Bears are particularly noted for the females’ mothering instinct.  Black bears are also very shy and will try hard to avoid humans.  About the only time they make contact is if they are habituated, which is to say they learn that humans are a safe food source, which happens due to careless persons leaving out food scraps and garbage.  Eastern black bear attacks on humans are virtually unheard of.

The Wolf

The North American wolves are pack animals.  Extremely intelligent and almost tribal, they are very shy and work bard to avoid humans.  They are hunting creatures and will take deer but often live on small animals such as rabbits and will live quite happily on rodents.  In recorded history there has never been a documented death caused by wild wolves.  There has been wolves caused by wolves that were partially domesticated then released.  In fact, among the canines, it seems they are only dangerous when humans have a hand in influencing their behavior.

The Coyote

The coyote is a mid-sized canid, kin to the wolf–in fact, close enough genetically that they can successfully interbreed.  Extremely clever, they are also pack hunters that will get by on large game when they can get it but generally subsist on leporidae such as rabbits as well as rodents.  In fact, coyotes form an important natural control of rodents, and without them who knows what the wild rodent population would escalate to.  Coyotes are not native to the East, though.  They come from North America’s desert southwest and made their way here over the last couple centuries, following the food and opportunities created by human settlement.  Attacks on humans are almost unheard of and there has only been one human death attributed to them, though myself and many other naturalists question whether the animals responsible were actually coyotes hybridized to domestic dogs (coy-dogs) which may have the hunting instinct of wild coyotes without the instinctive fear of humans.


Also known as mountain lions and pumas, cougars are one of North America’s larger wildcats.  The cougar is a very elusive animal and its habits, therefore, are somewhat mysterious.  Naturalists who know how to look for them consider themselves lucky even to encounter their tracks and spoor.  It is a lucky person who actually gets to sight one in the wild.  They may eat deer and other small to mid-sized animals, and they are solitary creatures that hunt alone.  They are only found together when a female is looking after cubs.  No one in the history of this vast northeast region has ever even been hurt by a mountain lion.


That is pretty much the list of big wild predators in the Eastern woodlands.  It is bizarre that people should so fear them when they have done so little harm.  In fact, every year hunters and trappers set out to kill coyotes and wolves and end up injuring and killing dozens of human beings by accident while year after year these animals do no harm to people whatsoever.

It must therefore be recognized that the fear of these animals can be nothing other than an irrational fear.  Therapists such as myself refer to false and bizarre stories that people persistently believe as delusions, and so those who believe they are in danger due to these wild creatures can be nothing less than delusional.  Those who persistently and irrationally believe they are in danger due to bizarre and unfounded reasons are diagnosed as paranoid.  Therefore, it can only be said that persons who believe the creatures of their surrounding wild country are a danger to them are diagnosably paranoid.

How did we come to this, as a culture? How did we come to believe that the green world around us is a danger zone?  Only a generation ago boys and girls regularly trekked into the woods for camp outs, marshmallow roasts and ghost stories.  Yet now they fear to leave their rooms and remain glued to text messages and game controllers.  And therein lies the answer.  People fear what they do not know. Folk have alienated themselves from their own natural world and so have come fear it.  This is a great tragedy, for that very green world is the literal source of life and a very healing force.  And it is being forgotten.  What’s more, driven by the neurosis of paranoia, many people are actively invested in wiping out the creatures of the wild world.

Yet there is no reason to fear the things in the dark.  They are a part of our world, a part of us.  And to enter that world is to get to know and appreciate those very creatures.  A turn around in how we think about the other beings that share this Earth with humans will be essential to creating a healthy world for us and all the life around us.


17 thoughts on “The Things People Fear In the Dark

  1. The only animals fearsome to me in our wooded areas are those that carry rifles and crossbows.

  2. steve price

    Here where i live the hunters make it a point to kill foxes & coyotes & other so called trash animals. No wild lifé is trash all are sacred & have a part to play in nature. That is my belief

  3. Ed

    I agree. But, just for accuracy, mountains have rarely killed people. I think the last attack was in 2007-08.

  4. MK Ray

    small correction. About 20 people have been killed by mountain lions in the last 120 years. Slightly more than than have been injured.
    Still that pales to the 50 or so FATAL hunting accidents each and every year in the USA.

    • Around North America, yes, and mostly unattended children, lone females and older men, which is typical predator behavior of going for the smallest and weakest. But I was referring to this region–the northeast USA and Atlantic Canada.

  5. For me the forests and mountains are home…..the cities are an artificial construct I feel truly at peace and as one when many miles from civilization and lights with just the sounds of the forests or desserts at night, there is no greater feeling in the universe than laying in a swag with a log fire for warmth and staring up at the starry heavens at night watching a meteor display to send you to sleep…

    I believe one cannot know himself till he lives in peace with the natural ebb and flow of his surroundings….

    • I was out last night in the woods, hauling in firewood. It never ceases to amaze me how people go running in the moment the sun goes down. But you are right, of course. One cannot know oneself til one lives well with the land we share at all times.

  6. Wait, cliffserunitne, are you a Nova Soctian too?!

  7. Anne Studley

    What about that young woman who was walking in the woods in Cape Breton and was attacked and killed by coyotes in 2009 (see: Not too long after that one of my colleagues was running in the Louisbourg fortress area as she did very early every morning when a policeman pulled up and told her that a pack of coyotes was following her. Call me paranoid, but that would have stopped me from running in that area at that time, especially after hearing about the previous attack! But actually, the animal I’m most afraid of in the woods/tall grass is the tick. I’ve met too many people in this area who have/had lyme disease.

    • Anne, the tragic death of Taylor Mitchell was very unlikely to be coyotes. I spoke with some of the DNR people involved in tracking the animals and their replies did not make sense. They stated they not only could tell it was coyotes from the tracks but which coyotes did the killing. There are so many problems with that I don’t know where to begin. I’ve tracked wildlife much of my life and don’t know how one can positively discern a coyote track from feral dog from the very few and random tracks they might have gotten a photo or casting of on October 28 on the hard, snowless ground of the Acadian Park highlands. I have less idea, unless the animals were sighted and scarred or tagged, how they could have been positive of which specific coyotes were responsible for Taylor Mitchell’s death prior to going out and killing said responsible animals. As no coyote in history has ever killed an adult human, and as a tracker their story doesn’t make sense tome, straight up what I am pretty certain happened is Ms. Mitchell was attacked by feral dogs, DNR blamed coyotes, and since the public wanted blood they tracked down and killed some nearby coyotes and claimed justice had been done.

      Regarding the event that happened to your colleague, I have never met a cop who was an animal behavior specialist, so I doubt the cop had any real idea what any coyotes in his area were doing. Most likely what happened is your colleague was jogging, a cop heard a coyote howl and then assumed the coyotes must be “following” her. I recall all the absurd fear after Ms Mitchell’s death–schools bringing students inside from recess if a coyote was sighted in the area, people going on the news and making ridiculous claims that coyotes were pursuing them during their walks as if the animals had suddenly declared war on humans (for which I wouldn’t blame them if they did). And the news stations, ever eager for click bait ratings, gobbled it all up. These were nothing more than the mass hysteria fueled by the tales of people ignorant of coyote behavior. Naturalists, such as myself, criticized the media heavily at that time for their fearmongering for the sake of getting ratings. But the media weren’t the only ones at fault. I follow the websites and blogs of several coyote hunting groups, and the absurd stories they were telling each other would boggle any rational mind. My favorite was that there were really hundreds of injuries and dozens of deaths inflicted by coyotes in every county of Nova Scotia, but there was a big conspiracy by government to cover it up.

      The reality is that in the five centuries or so that Europeans have colonized North America, there is at most one single adult human/coyote death. In the time it took you to read that sentence, several people were murdered by other people around the world. Several people were hit by cars. Several persons died from accidents in their home. I always advocate reasonable caution in wild places, but if you’re terrified of the outdoors because of coyotes, your fears are incredibly misplaced. Literally, you could baste yourself in beef gravy and walk naked from southwest to northeast Nova Scotia and the odds of a wild animal attacking you are close to 0%. On the other hand, the odds of being hit by a car, or mugged or murdered, would be substantial.

      Regarding ticks, spray yourself with Deet and check yourself when you come back inside. The ticks, thanks to human induced climate change, are here to stay, but presuming you do get bitten by a deer tick that is carrying the infection, it would have to stay on you at least 24 hrs for you to be infected. So just be sure to properly spray yourself before and clean and check yourself after. In the Deep South where I grew up, ticks are everywhere. It’s a reality one learns to adapt to.

  8. Anne Studley

    Well then, I’m afraid of feral dogs who don’t greet me in a friendly way! I also grew up in the Deep South and spent most of my free time running around in a forest at the end of my street. The only time I even got a tick on me was when I was visiting my grandparents in Ohio! But I had never heard of lyme disease before moving to Nova Scotia 8 years ago. I’ve used deet plenty of times and have it in the trunk of my car but am not a fan of putting poison all over me, having it seep into my bloodstream through my pores. I’ve also read that it doesn’t always take as long as 24 hours to get infected by one of the other very nasty spirokeet thingies those ticks carry around. Incidentally, I did walk through the woods to Uisge Ban Falls by myself on a late rainy afternoon not too long after that “coyote”/feral dog incident. I was a little bit afraid. And I was white knuckling it driving home to Halifax from Sydney last Thursday through the white-outs!

    • Lyme disease is a fairly new development, originally diagnosed in 1975 in Old Lyme, Connecticut. The high risk location for it is about dead center New England. It has slowly been spreading south, west and north since then. Currently, there are only two small locations in NS where there are ticks known to be infected with the disease and they are both in the warmer zones around central and southwest NS.

      When you were a child in the Deep South, it would have been almost unheard of. I never even heard of it til I was living in Alaska many years after leaving Louisiana. Still, even if bitten by an infected tick, the risk of development is low. Antibiotics post bite cut that risk even lower. It is thought by many health professionals that it actually takes 36 to 48 hours of the tick being attached to even have a risk. Honestly, Lyme horror stories are one of those click-bait stories the media likes, but there is less to it than that. If you are very worried about it, the reasonable response is to use Deet, such as Off. It is a lesser evil than allowing one’s life to be restricted.

      Unfortunately, a preventative vaccine was developed in the ’90s but the company was sued over allegations that were never medically proven. But the company decided to pull the vaccine rather than continue to fight lawsuits that had as much scientific currency behind them as allegations that vaccines cause autism–which is to say no scientific currency behind them. Currently, three new preventative vaccines are in development. I would consider Lyme disease a very low risk and something that there will shortly be a vaccine to prevent.

      Keep getting out, enjoy the outdoors, and don’t fear it. Honestly, the greatest dangers are from the human world. Nature is generally benign.

  9. Anne Studley

    Thanks for the information, Cliff. I worked with someone who lost her vision from Lyme complications and know others around who have had other serious neurological complications from it – so it does creep me out. I wore premerin soaked pant leggings with my pants tucked into my boots in the woods in Vermont last spring and still got a tick on my thigh inside my pants! Luckily I was able to brush it off with an involuntary yelp of horror, though not quite as melodramatic as when I would find flying cockroaches in my bed growing up in SC. Now that is SCARY! Trepedaciously I’ll be returning to those Vermont woods this year. So it doesn’t prevent me from going out into nature – just puts me on alert. I heard that Japanese knotweed roots are a good alternative to the antibiotics. Do you know anything about that?

    I think that the combination of humans and nature can be pretty terrifying – like driving on roads in NS in various winter conditions. I’m sure most of us here have plenty of hair raising stories on that subject.

    • Regarding J. knotweed, I don’t know of its antibiotic use. I use fungi and lichen for antimicrobial benefits. But J. knotweed root is full of resveratrol, an active ingredient in eliminating LDL cholesterol from the cardiovascular system and part of the reason for the French paradox that causes the French to have such healthy cardio systems and longevity despite eating some of the fattiest food in the world (red wine is also full of resveratrol).

      We will cover J. knotweed at this year’s class, as it is a wonderful alternative to both rhubarb and asparagus, and a liquid source a little later in the year, and a useful animal feed.

  10. Diane M

    I truly enjoy these discussions, so much information. Thank you. Do you or have you ever considered speaking to children in elementary schools ? What a gift to them and to you .

    • Hi Diane, thank you for the idea. I haven’t done talks at schools or even considered it. It’s a good idea though I can’t stand going into towns. It’s generally something I do and get over as quickly as possible, only when needed.

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