According to headshrinks phobias are an irrational fear, but tell that to anyone who’s had their face bit clean off by a tarantula or plummeted from the skies in a metal box with wings. You can’t, because they’re dead; their arachno and avio phobias proving to be an ominous foreboding rather than unsound apprehension.
Granted those who get the sweats from a cucumber slice or footstool probably need to have a little look at themselves, but getting the frights from dangerous animals or machines defying gravity seems perfectly sane behaviour to me. I should know for I am one.
Animals for me should be avoided at all costs and left to kill, snarl and maul in their own natural habitat with the general rule of thumb being that if they don’t beg for Gravybones or brush your leg in appreciation at forthcoming Dreamies then keep it the fuck away from me.
This way of thinking is partly borne out of ignorance – I recently had to be convinced that chickens don’t possess teeth – but also, admittedly, a good slice of cowardice: during a picnic this summer I declined the opportunity to feed the squirrels for fear of them savagely tearing apart my flesh in a vicious monkeynut frenzy.
So with all this in mind imagine my outright terror at attending a birds of prey experience at the Cheshire Falconry Centre where I would be subjected to…sorry, be privileged to enjoy the close company of…swooping beasts gargantuan in scale whose raptorial nature is even included in their description. Eagles with wingspans longer than a Yaya Toure piledriver. Buzzards with beaks that would shame Sarah Jessica Parker. All with talons designed to mercilessly rip their victims to shreds. They are called talons rights? To me they will always be death claws.
I’m here because it’s my girlfriend’s birthday and ultimately love conquers all, even a sincere belief that today half of me will be fashioned into a crude treetop nest whilst the remains of my remains scatter the fields nearby. When it comes to nature we’re Paula Abdul and MC Skat Kat - her DVD collection is dominated by Attenborough box-sets whilst mine is Soprano heavy. When she excitedly points to a kite I turn and expect to see string. Usually this opposing stance matters little but now results in her marvelling at the winged wonders in the enclosure while I walk tremulously past a white-tailed sea eagle who is eyeing me with the same squinty menace a town psycho pierces after eleven pints. Otherwise serene upon his perch the enormous predator senses my loosening bowels. He knows I’m a toothless chicken-shit.
We are greeted by Robert and led into a nearby paddock. Robert is a man of boundless enthusiasm for all things feathery and scatterguns an encyclopaedia of fascinating facts about them while wearing attire usually reserved for eccentric antique dealers on BBC2. You suspect he has volumes on Cromwell and favours ales with peculiar names. Despite being surrounded by rare and attention-grabbing creatures he is the star of the show and well worth the admission alone.
Standing in the middle of the large grass circle a leather gauntlet is fitted to my left hand and a male owl – incongruously named Vera – is whistled over tempted by a chick’s foot placed between thumb and finger. Pfft even I’m not afraid of owls. I may not be savvy to the complex intricacies of the wild but I’ve seen enough fiction to know I’m at worst in danger of being sternly lectured to. As Vera swoops down and delicately rests on my arm nibbling contently on her gross pink snack Robert informs me that it’s a complete myth that owls are wise. So Milne lied to me? Oh.
Instead of then flying off to the nearest staging post – as he had done with all of the previous members of our group – Vera then turns to study his human dinner table. For what seemed like a full awkward minute we stared at intimate distance, within his saucer eyes a silent warning for me alone. “Yeah I’m small. But wait until my mates come later. We’re on to you”.
Next up is a kookaburra; part of the kingfisher family it may be small but squawks like a bastard and darts for its prey with seemingly malicious intent. There is genuine relief and surprise when only a soft pat on the gauntlet is felt as it somehow applies the handbrakes in an instant. This feat with their feet never failed to amaze me. We may be pushing technological advances to the point where in Formula 1 disc temperatures exceed 900oc but we will never surpass the abilities of creatures with IQs lower than the average Loose Women viewer.
My fledgling confidence rises further when a kestrel appears and thoughts inevitably turn to Brian Glover being Bobby Charlton because ‘Denis Law is in the wash this week’. As Robert beckons the impressive bird to my arm I whisper ‘C’mon Kes. C’mon lass’ and the lass duly does come, pecking with glee at the bounty I hold.
Throughout the morning I gradually begin to relax and get into this strange but thoroughly enjoyable experience even forgetting at one stage that I had my arm held out only to discover a Harris hawk upon it. There is something undeniably uplifting seeing a kid barely into his teens bonding with a bird usually only found on the south American plains. There is something twee and wonderful about a group of strangers smiling and learning together.
But any delight is tempered throughout the day – even as we go hunting with two of the hawks in woodland and I begin to imagine myself as Ray Mears with better hair – by the fact that waiting for me back at the centre, biding his time, was my majestic imminent slayer, the eagle.
I’m told there are no recorded instances of birds of prey directly killing a human, only an unfortunate incident of a guy once being startled off a ladder perished by shock at a fleeing raptor. Great, as if my impending doom wasn’t bad enough I was now heading for the record books too.
At least if you’re going to go it may as well be death by eagle rather than sighing your last into a settee. At least that’s some consolation. And no-one would ever know of my stupid fears because I’ll never get to write this. Instead perhaps they’ll read about it in the local paper and imagine a ferocious scrap, a fight between man and one of the kings of nature. No shame in losing that one.
As Andy, another of the centre’s staff, prepares the colossal beast I want to bottle it. Want to run. Except that fucking kid has already held it so I can’t lose face. Not through pride at least. The three foot tall and eight and a half pound white tailed sea eagle will do that for me with one swipe of his wing or peck in the mush.
I grimace as its placed upon my quivering arm then force out a smile, an expression that changes to bewilderment as I turn to face at close quarters my killer-to-be. Christ it’s big, posing like on a dollar bill with an aloofness only true royalty can master. Its stature and beauty is genuinely humbling as I hold aloft a bird I’d only have witnessed before on nature programmes if I ever bothered to watch them. Its stare contains memories of lands and vistas I will never share. Its power vibrates through to my skin. Its….fucking hell, get it off me, my arm is about to break!
As we head home I realise my phobia of large animals has evaporated. One phobia down, just another fifty or so to go. Just one day had changed a lifetime’s perception on nature and given me a sincere appreciation of the sheer wonder within it.
But a revisiting of Sopranos season 4 awaited me and the excitement for that was mounting.
There’s no getting around it. I will always be a man for the great indoors.