If you grew up in a land of potentially dangerous animals, as I did, much of your outdoors education might have entailed learning to recognize and avoid the settings in which you were most likely to encounter them. Dawn after a streak of hot, rainless, overcast days? Shark weather, according to the local wisdom. A smooth clearing in otherwise tangled bushland, its topside granulated like cane sugar? A telltale sign of Australian bulldog ants below, prickling with venom. The wisest way to flip a rock: Reach over and pull the farthest edge up toward you. Now anything coiled beneath it escapes in an away direction. Coming to understand oneself as, if not prey, at the very least a legible target for other creatures’ defensive instincts was a timeworn rite of passage. Still, shrewd (and possibly life-preserving) though it was to jump back from a shiver sliding through the long grass, I remember being most afraid of animals that posed little immediate threat to my life or well-being. What terrified me—and in this, I feel sure I am not alone—were bats.
For context, let me describe the Nocturnal House at the Perth Zoo, a brown-brick outbuilding tucked behind bamboo in a far corner of the grounds. On entering, a person leaves daylight behind, passing through a blackened corridor into a space flooded with red light. I know now that the lighting design has less to do with macabre theatricality than with the zoologists’ intent to display nighttime animals at their most wakeful: The large-eyed mammals and birds inside, aglow in crimson, are not spooked by the low, red luminance of the space, and so they behave as they might under cloak of darkness. But absent this explanation, the ambience did much to transpose the fauna of the Nocturnal House into a child’s gathering nightmares.