Prey Drive: the Chase and the Catch
By Mark A. Latham
For millennia, mankind has been driven by the thrill of the chase. The hunt, the pursuit of a partner, the games we play as children, the exhilaration of watching a high-speed pursuit, or the adrenaline rush that comes from fleeing our pursuers. Humans and animals both share a primal joy of the chase – a phenomenon known as the ‘prey drive’ – and it’s a part of everyday life. Whilst in nature a prey drive is vital for survival, in human society it can be seen in everyday life – our jobs, our love lives, and our games. It’s no surprise then that the chase (and, partly, the kill) is a fundamental part of a new and innovative sport: Polearmball.
What is Prey Drive?
First, let’s discuss the fundamental misconception about our love of the chase. Prey drive (also called ‘predator drive’) is not the same as aggression. It is a natural, enjoyable response to chasing down a target, and is present in all predatory creatures. Dogs and cats often chase ‘prey animals’, but they don’t always kill what they catch – the experience of the chase is enough for them. You could equate this to the fisherman who spends all day waiting for the big bite, only to put his prize catch back in the water before he leaves. I’ll talk about killer instinct later – prey drive and killer instinct are two very different things. That’s not to say that getting chased by a predator is safe! There’s some truth to the old saying that you shouldn’t turn and run if you encounter a bear in the wild, for example – movement triggers the prey drive, and a predatory creature will instinctively pursue something that runs from it – and unlike most humans, bears do have a killer instinct!
Whether you’re a man, a bear or a domestic cat, exercising a prey drive unlocks a sequence of actions: The Search, the Stalk (or ‘Eye Stalk’), the Chase, the Grab, and, finally the Kill. Some animals concentrate their energy on different areas of this sequence. For example, a bird of prey will spend most of its time hovering above a field, waiting for prey to make a move (the Search), whereas a wolf pack will ‘cut to the chase’ very quickly. A farmer herding his flock relies on the stalking ability of his dogs – their ability to stare down sheep and almost entrance them is the key to directing herd animals.
Of course, hunting isn’t just the remit of predatory animals. Humans have been hunting prey animals throughout their history, and in many parts of the world it is still a primary source of food. However, in western culture particularly, hunting has been refined into various disciplines, partaken as a hobby rather than a survival tactic. As recently as a decade ago, fox-hunting was enjoyed as a sport in the United Kingdom. The red-coated hunters on their horses would pursue a fox, using a pack of hounds to follow the fox’s scent trail. What is unusual about this pastime is that it is not hunting for food, but rather for extermination – the fox, if caught, is killed by the hounds. Dogs used for fox-hunting are not the typical canine companions we’re all used to having in our homes – they’re allowed to retain some of their pack mentality, and are encouraged to have a killer instinct. Unlike your average pet, these dogs use every part of their prey drive. The reward for the human hunters is the thrill of he chase, the joy of success, and a traditional toast to ‘the day’s fox’. These days, fox-hunting is banned in Britain, but that doesn’t stop the hunt from taking place. The dogs, bred for so long to hunt and kill, would make for pretty poor pets; and so now human runners are employed to lay a scent trail across-country, which the hounds then chase. They don’t get the kill any more, but they do still experience the chase, which is enough for most dogs.
Sticking to the British Isles for a moment, it’s worth mentioning the old hunting practice of deer stalking. This is particularly popular in Scotland, where the great expanses of rugged land and forests nurture large numbers of wild deer. In deer stalking, the emphasis is on the search – the stalkers will spend hours looking for a prime vantage point, and then spend several more hours waiting silently and patiently for a deer to cross their sights. They stay downwind at all times – moving position if the wind changes – and then only take their shot if they can ensure a clean kill. Imagine spending hours in the cold, wet Highlands, finally finding your deer, and then not pulling the trigger! Yet deer stalking is an ancient and honourable pastime, and the hunters believe that no animal should suffer unnecessarily.
These tactics and formalisations of old hunting methods are nothing new to man. When we think about great hunters, we often think of the Native American Indians, who lived according to the ever-changing hunting grounds of the Great Plains. They hunted buffalo before the introduction of the horse to North America, and afterwards became some of the finest horse archers in history, chasing down the herds of buffalo on horseback. The Native Americans also bound hunting in ritual and honour, not only to ensure success on the hunt, but to appease their gods and ensure future success, too. Hunters would be blessed before setting out, and the great spirits would have to be appeased to guarantee favourable conditions for the hunt. The hunters would be adorned with charms and sacred face-paint, and would compete with each other for the cleanest kill, the most kills, the taking of the largest animal, and so on. Once they returned to camp, the animals would be butchered. Every part of the creature would be used – the bones for tools and jewellery, the skins for clothing, headdresses and hides, and the meat for food. Sometimes parts of the animal would be offered to the spirits, so that they would reward the tribe with good hunting grounds the following season.
We might think these rituals and traditions strange, but think about it – how many people who go hunting carry a lucky rabbit’s foot, or wear their lucky socks? Even in sports, which I’ll come to in a moment, how many players do you see touching the turf when they run onto the football pitch, or kissing the lucky tattoo on their wrist when they score in a soccer game? Ritual, psychology, tradition – these are things that separate the human hunter from the animal.
Let the Games Commence!
Human beings have an almost primal need to release those pent-up prey drive instincts. Modern life has removed much of the danger that our ancient ancestors had to endure, and in an increasingly urban society not everyone is able to (or wants to) go hunting at the weekend. But humans are the most adaptable creatures on the planet, and so we’ve invented a whole host of ways to exercise our prey drive. We call it: sport.
Most competitive sports involve an element of chase that is integral to victory or defeat. In soccer, you chase the ball, but you have to outpace and outmuscle your opponents to do it, releasing those same emotions that the Native Americans did when vying for the biggest buffalo on the plains. In American football (and rugby), the physical side is ramped up a notch, and you stalk and chase the quarterback before he can score (whereas the quarterback chases the ball). Tackles can be considered the ‘grab’ part of the pursuit – just like a cheetah tripping an antelope in the wild. In either case, there’s always a target, and a reward for catching the target. In Polearmball, as in football, a designated Runner is sent off with the ball to score, and the opposing team must chase him/her down. If they catch the Runner, they can contain him, or metaphorically go for the ‘kill’ – but of course, first they have to get past the Runner’s teammates!
In competitive athletics, or even motorsports, you could be forgiven for thinking that the chase instinct isn’t exercised. After all, you’re not chasing each other down, right? Well, not entirely – the frontrunner is actually chasing the finish line, and the reward that comes from crossing it. The other competitors are really chasing the frontrunner, because that person is preventing them from claiming the reward for themselves. Obviously there’s no tackling involved (that would be bad!), but the emotions stirred are exactly the same as when hunting and chasing prey. Having someone ahead of you in a race is the thing that spurs you on, giving you the adrenaline rush to go that extra yard.
Remember earlier I mentioned watching chases can be just as exciting? Well, it’s true – it’s not quite as exhilarating as being involved, but if you have a stake on a horse or a greyhound at the races, or if you’re heavily invested in your team’s performance at a football game, you’ll release all of that adrenaline and all of those emotions, just as sure as if you were out there doing it yourself.
Doing it for Real
Watching spectator sports isn’t the only way to release that adrenaline in a ‘voyeuristic’ manner. Ever watched a high-speed pursuit on World’s Wildest Police Videos? The only way to make a spectator event truly exciting, without having your team’s victory riding on it, is to add an element of genuine danger. We thrill to police pursuit footage because we don’t know how it’s going to turn out. Maybe the criminal will get away; maybe they’ll be arrested; maybe someone will get hurt, or even killed! It’s that uncertainty of the outcome that makes us experience the chase vicariously through the people on our TV screens.
But what about the people that do it for real? Well, the cops who’re out there chasing down dangerous criminals, or the soldiers in far-off lands hunting insurgents every day, don’t have to imagine what it’s like to have a well-honed prey drive. They’re uniquely placed, because they live it every day. But there must be other ways for humans to exercise a prey drive? The heroes of the emergency services and armed forces can’t have it all, can they?
Human society has come a long way. Our social interactions and customs have watered down many of the primal instincts that we used to use on a daily basis. We do perform ‘the chase’ more often than you might think, just in a modern form. Think about the emotions and physical responses you might have been through when you’ve been ‘chasing’ a job at interview, or maybe ‘chasing’ a deal at the office, or maybe you and your partner have been ‘chasing’ your dream home. If you failed, remember how frustrated you were? If you succeeded, remember how elated you were? That’s those same instincts coming to the fore again, just in a different form.
And remember the old saying ‘the chase is better than the catch?’ You’ll never find a better example of the prey drive in men than when they’re trying to get involved romantically with a woman. And the reason the chase is better than the catch is because it’s thrilling. There are twists and turns. Gone are the days of early man when we’d just hit our beloved over the head with a club and drag her back to our cave. Now we have to work at it, like the patient hunter.
The Killer Instinct
Through all of this, I’ve maintained that the killer instinct is separate from the prey drive. You don’t have to kill what you catch. As in Polearmball, the kill is a strategic choice, not an imperative. When predators play, they simply chase and that’s enough – like kids playing tag in the schoolyard. But when the stakes are high, all predators have to be able to finish the job, and deliver the killing blow. Psychologists believe that only 2% of modern humans actually have the capacity to kill another human – that doesn’t take into account soldiers, as they are believed to enter an altered state when they’re in a war zone. But we do have the capacity to score a goal in soccer; to pull the trigger when stalking a deer; to dig deep and beat the other guy in a marathon; and to give the girl our number. In modern life, the killer instinct is not as primeval as out in the wild. We have become something very different to our forebears – we have developed reason, and wisdom, and a sense of responsibility. It’s in harnessing these things, along with our more primal urges, that allows us to emerge truly victorious from the chase.