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Of Ants, Anticipation, Appreciation and Acceptance

It promised to be a great place to visit: a spectacular series of multi-colored cliffs rising 90 feet above the water; springs reputed to offer mineral water cures; a river coursing through that provides a gateway to the Pamlico Sound and the Atlantic Ocean; a river that even had an ironclad named for it, the CSS Neuse, a vessel that played a role in Civil War history. Flora and fauna in abundance: more than 420 species of plants; a cypress swamp and Spanish moss; river otter and muskrat swimming along the waterways; white-tailed deer to be seen along the hiking trails.

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We were in the area, up for doing something impromptu, and had an afternoon made for a hike in the woods. From the map before us, a state park called to us: Cliffs of the Neuse.

There were very few moments when one could stop to take a photo without being covered with ants. This was one of those moments.
There were very few moments when one could stop to take a photo without being covered with ants. This was one of those moments.

BUT, BUT, BUT–as I read in blog posts after we returned home–the trails in this park are delights to traverse in the fall, winter and spring but should be avoided in the summer months. Why? Because of the MULTITUDE OF ANTS that hikers encounter along the trails!!

My companions (Jean, Alan, Gene, and an Old English Sheepdog named Molly) and I had never seen swarms like these!! There appeared to be millions of them! It wasn’t too bad initially, as the first few photos in this entry suggest but the further inland we went, the worse it got. You couldn’t stop for even a moment. We used our ball caps to swat ants off of our pant legs and feet. I was in my nearly-always-worn Columbia sandals while my companions were more sensibly shod (remember, this was a spur of the moment turn of the wheel), so I got the worst of it and was bitten several times.

Once we knew what we were facing, we raced along and, when we–at last–reached the parking area, which was relatively insect-free, I picked ants out of our Molly’s pads and swept her body to make sure she was okay. A fellow hiker, who had traversed the trails with a little dog, came upon us and suggested we go to the on-site campground to hose our Molly down. She planned to do the same with her tiny, low-to-the-ground canine as she had ants all over her body.

All that said, I must admit that I am grateful for the day’s experience. The park has a well appointed, inviting visitors’ center that was staffed at the time of our look-see by a warm and friendly woman. The park’s overseers respect the ants and THEIR habitat and do not spray to eliminate their colonies (though I was told by a fellow hiker the parking areas are treated). I can also appreciate why the ants would respond to our presence as they did: they were trying to protect each other and their communities as we stomped through them.IMG_2012

I have but two complaints.

On not a single page of the park brochure and nowhere on the park’s online site did we find any mention of the ants. At no time, during our conversation with the attendant at the visitors’ center, was a warning issued about the ants. This wasn’t fair to the humans and canines visiting the park and it wasn’t fair to the ants.

Our encounter with the tiny park denizens provided a very vivid reminder of our need to respect these fascinating socially-oriented creatures that share this world with us. The ants and we would have benefitted from a heads-up. We would also have benefitted from better-marked trails (the target of my second complaint) that could have led us more directly out of their habitat.

Two of the biggest challenges facing creatures in the wild today are habitat loss and conflicts with humans resulting from that loss. There may well have been other visitors or there may yet be visitors to the park, spending an afternoon as we were, who would complain because the ants hadn’t been eradicated so bipeds and quadrupeds could better enjoy the trails. What’s important to keep in mind here is that, for the six-legged ants, the park is home. It would be disastrous for the trails to treated with pesticides as some folks might demand. Better to tell people when to stay away.

Humans are, regularly, moving into and taking over the habitats of other species and, when the natural denizens are deemed by the interlopers to be nuisances, demands are made for the original inhabitants to be removed post haste. This is ethically and environmentally absurd. It’s long past time we reevaluated the ways in which we view the myriad of species that share this world with us.

“People often ask which animals are ‘good,’ as if it were the most natural thing in the world to judge them by what benefits they provide to humans. Even animal advocates can lapse into this faulty way of thinking. Bats are important, many say, because they perform mosquito control; snakes are valued because they eat rodents. These are indirect services that can help humans, no doubt, but they do not so much justify why people should tolerate and accept these species . . . Tolerance comes through understanding and raised awareness and acceptance of the diversity of life, not from a benefit calculation that reduces animals to the services they provide.” [Wild Neighbors: The Humane Approach to Living with Wildlife, p. 148]

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I hope I will have the opportunity to make a return visit to the Cliffs of Neuse State Park but I will only attempt to do so when I can hope to be less of a detriment to the ants.

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