"That's an infringement of privacy."
"It's to protect us."
A few of my colleagues were in the midst of a heated debate about privacy versus protection in the face of terrorist threats. Surveillance cameras, phone and computer "tapping," fingerprints, and face mapping were being discussed.
"I want to go about my life unobserved," said one.
"Then live in the woods where no one will see you," retorted another.
That's what you think, I thought to myself. The FBI, CIA, and Homeland Security don't have to patrol the woods. There are plenty of wild creatures there – and they are watching:
It is a beautiful spring day. You are enjoying the solitude of trails winding between tall maples, oaks, and poplars, away from city noise and crowds. You sing to yourself, certain that no one is there to hear your less-than-melodious voice. You might even wave your arms a bit, in imitation of your favorite opera diva or rock star.
But several pairs of radarlike ears monitor your movements. The owners of the ears have cinnamon-colored coats that blend perfectly with the surrounding tree trunks, and so you are oblivious to their presence. But those furry, pointed detection devices hear each note you sing and every sound your footsteps make. The deer are listening.
You can't hide from raptors, either. Hawks, eagles, falcons, vultures – just specks in the clouds to a human eye – are able to spot the tiniest mouse or vole on the ground, not to mention a big, bulky human.
Mosquitoes, gnats, and ticks always know exactly where you are without any fancy surveillance tools. They zero in effortlessly on their vulnerable prey, no matter how camouflaging the covering clothes.
Sometimes you may think you have perfected the art of silence and stillness, outwitted senses more acute than yours. But not for long.
It was a hot and humid summer day. I was languidly walking in the woods, one slow footstep after another. Then, when rounding a blind curve on the trail, I came to a sudden halt. There, not more than 50 feet before me, stood a coyote on the crest of a rise. Head up, ears erect, the regal creature surveyed his surroundings. For 15 or 20 seconds I stood immobile, barely breathing. But the coyote knew I was there. With a sudden glance towards me, the golden eyes met mine, and the coyote loped off into the brush.
There are times in the woods when you want to be noticed – well in advance. A friend and I were hiking in Alaska one spring. Over and over the locals cautioned us to beware of the bears. We never wanted to accidentally come between a mother and cubs, they said. The bears must be warned of humans approaching well in advance, to give them ample time to remove themselves and their cubs to safety.
"How do we do that?" my friend asked with a gulp.
"Make noise," the locals said. "Play a radio at full blast, rattle tin cans, sing. (In the absence of radio or tin cans, we sang for six hours.)
"Of course," the locals added, "if you're upwind of the bears, they'll instantly know that you're there." Believed to have the "keenest sense of smell in the animal world," bears can detect your presence on a trail up to 14 hours after you've gone.
You need not even be present for some sneaky sleuths to tell your tales. Raccoons on the night shift routinely gather evidence of your dietary deeds.
It is midnight and while you are sleeping, these furry masked bandits examine the contents of your garbage can. They easily discover that discarded ice cream container and remains of a cheeseburger and fries. You can fool others about your diet, but not raccoons. (Of course, if the trash yields nothing but empty tofu wrappers, leftover wheat germ grains, and a bean sprout or two, you're in the clear.)
Inside your house, domestic detectives lurk. Man's best friend could potentially be man's most astute informer. Those alert canine ears can hear secrets about you that most bugging devices can't.
And the dog's moist, quivering nose, like a Geiger counter roving around your anatomy and clothes, can determine where you've been and with whom. Anyone entering your home is subject to examination by this resident member of the Canine Intelligence Agency.
A dog monitors not only his owner's moves but also his or her moods. If you're sad, he comes to sit beside you. If you're happy, he insists that you come out and play. Often, he determines your intentions: When you contemplate cooking, he stations himself at the kitchen door. If you consider taking a walk, he heads for his leash.
All are enviable skills that aren't surprising for a proud descendent of the wolf.
There is a wonderful native American saying: "A pine needle fell in the forest. The eagle saw it. The deer heard it. The bear smelled it."
And, I would add, a human was awed by the brilliance of their detection skills. Maybe perfect privacy isn't so important after all.