The rabbit and the fox

When a fox chases a rabbit, the rabbit often outruns the fox. This is because the fox is merely running for its food; while the rabbit is running for its life.

I’ve heard a few variations to this expression over the years (another just this morning); all variations usually boil down to the same point, that the prey, running for its life, is motivated to run faster than the predator. While I can appreciate the lesson in motivation that this expression has to offer, I’m dismayed by the inaccuracy of it. When a fox is chasing after its food, it is running for its life. I highly doubt that the fox takes one potential meal less seriously than another, unless it is already well-fed, or too exhausted or ill to run properly. A cheetah chasing a gazelle is no different: if a cheetah fails to bring down its prey, it’s in real danger of exhausting its energy, making the cheetah potentially too weak to chase down its next opportunity. Rabbits and gazelles, on the other hand, can replenish their energy more readily by munching on vegetation that doesn’t try to outrun them.

It’s not a thought that necessarily amounts to much; but I think it’s unwise to discount the motivation of predators, who are just as likely hunting for the survival of their offspring as they are their own survival. From modern human perspectives, it might be easier to underestimate this dynamic: many people, due to an abundance of convenient food, might very well have the perspective that a meal that gets away from the predator is just a meal – like us moving on to the next restaurant, a predator need only find more prey somewhere. It’s also no secret that modern humans tend to be out of touch with the wilderness.

When a predator chases after its prey, both predator and prey engage in an ancient and sacred contest, both equally motivated to win. The winner, then, is not the more motivated; but rather the one who makes the fewest mistakes when it counts most, has the greater luck, and the better overall condition. The winner of this match is the one who can most quickly gain and maximize an advantage. This is as it is, and it is as it should be. If it were as the expression often suggests, our world would be full of fat, lazy rabbits; and foxes would be no more than a distant memory.

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