Living in harmony: a false belief system
Until two years ago, I had thought that I could live ‘in harmony’ with nature and wildlife. I didn’t own a gun and didn’t want one. I had the ‘citified’ belief of a newbie to the area that if I didn’t bother the bears, then the bears wouldn’t bother me–ditto for cougars, foxes, etc. However, it is simply not true no matter how much you want to believe it. Everything out there is trying to make a living just as I am. Unfortunately, when you are trying to make a living by raising all your own food, you present a sumptuous smorgasbord to a host of predators.
Not only that: if you do as I was doing–let an area of the land or lawn ‘go back to nature’ (as gardening tips in magazines for city-slickers suggest, in order to create habitat and lessen one’s carbon footprint)–what you end up with is just that: habitat. This is a great idea for urban folk and for those living in less wild areas than rural/remote British Columbia. There are wonderful stories of people living ‘in harmony’ with nature in this way: ‘Isn’t it cute to see deer re-populating this valley’; ‘We now have a riot of bird calls in the morning,’ and the like. However, I have come to learn that this idea cannot be applied universally, and certainly not to the conditions in which I live, because what I have managed to do here is create a wonderfully rich and diverse cover for the large predators (one that camouflages a cougar, for instance, quite nicely) as they find their way to that ‘sumptuous smorgasbord’.
This is a big topic and one that engages and enrages people depending upon their view and experience, of and with, the subjects. So here’s my story.
Facing reality: a shift in beliefs
So there I was on a gorgeous, sunny day quietly minding my own business, head down planting my strawberry runners into a new patch–which happened to be quite close to the area I had set aside to let nature have her way with. I was taking care to build the beds up into raised beds so that next year they would come on early, when suddenly I got the feeling I was being watched. At first, I thought I was just being silly and tried to shake the feeling off. However, after several minutes the hairs on the back of my neck stood up, so I paid attention. ‘Cougar,’ I thought, ‘I’m being watched by a cougar.’
I took a look around to see if I could spot anything and when I didn’t, I thought, ‘This is just paranoia creeping in, because you are alone on the farm without a dog (aka my early warning system).’ I went back to what I was doing. A few minutes later when the feeling would not go away, I decided that I had better listen to my instincts and head inside. I put on a pot of coffee and began to make my lunch. While filling the kettle I stared out the kitchen window at the new strawberry patch, and out from the long grass came the cougar. It was a big, full grown cat easily outweighing me.
Calling for back-up
I called the Conservation officer right away and he came running, literally. I’m lucky to live right across the street from the office. He and a biologist came with the CO’s dog and tried to track the cougar, but to no avail. ‘Grass is too long,’ he said. That perfect cover for the cougar also meant he couldn’t be tracked!
After lunch, I abandoned my Martha Stewart aspirations and got out my power brush cutter. As I mowed down the beautiful mixed grasses, wildflowers and lilies, I again got the feeling of being watched. This time I immediately came inside the house. Again, within a minute of my getting inside, out jumped the cougar. This time, he was headed back towards the CO’s office. Sure enough, a few seconds later his dog was barking excitedly and moments later the chase was on.
Unfortunately, the CO and his one dog were not a match for the cougar and it got away. I say unfortunately, not because I want to kill cougars, but because I wanted that cougar killed. It has kept coming back and consequently, I no longer feel very safe on the farm. After that incident, I felt violated and unsafe in my own home. The feeling was akin to the feelings evoked by a home robbery I experienced in the city. Now I felt my personal space once again violated, but this time on a much greater scale. This cougar could cost me my life, or at least the life of some of my animals, and therefore my livelihood.
Myths and Realities
There are many issues here, too many for me to deal with comprehensively in one post. For example, we should really have more than one Conservation Officer in this area. It is really dangerous work and they should not have to face these predators alone. But this issue in itself is huge, so I’ll leave it at that.
Another is, and this will upset some readers, that this cougar should have been shot. These kinds of predators need to be ‘trained’ (or retrained, as the case may be) not to come where humans are. One of the reasons that the large predators are coming back into cities and generally to where humans are is that we are no longer shooting at them. Consequently, they no longer see us as an equal predator, or even as a threat. These animals have figured out that they can get away with being out in the day time, so every year there are more reports of them marauding on farms, and through garage bins in cities. If you don’t want to take my word for it, read the books by bear behaviour expert, Gary Shelton: Bear Attacks, Bear Attacks II, and Bear Attacks: Myth and Reality.
As for me, the issue of predators directly affect my livelihood: we have lost several chickens to hawks and foxes, baby ducks to eagles and ravens, and the Mallard drake to a fox. As for fruit trees, the bears have broken branches off the apples and the pears. Some people say, ‘Just go out and buy some more’; ‘Why are you keeping fruit trees in bear territory? If you have animals and fruit trees then you are just asking for predators to come’; or (my personal favourite), ‘Well, you are in their territory.’ Am I really ‘in their territory?’ If so, isn’t all of the North American population? The reason we have the agricultural areas we do is because we’ve shot everything that moved there, and let them know they don’t belong here any more. It was a matter of survival and economics. After all, we all need to eat.
A right to livelihood
This is a personal economic loss. I am trying to make my living at home by what I like to call ‘direct economics’. Instead of trading my time in an office for a wage and then going to the store and buying food, I want to close that loop. Not only do I feel this is personally important to me, but I believe it is the best way I can help the planet: my food miles are very short, I don’t have to travel to work, my animals are treated decently (some would say spoiled), and I’m not polluting the water table.
Should I not have the right to own land where I chose to? To grow my own food, and make my living directly in this way? To own fruit trees and raise chickens and turkeys instead of making a wage and having to buy them? If so, then I also need the right to push back a predator in order to protect my livelihood. If not, I will be forced to move to an already over-populated area (but an area carefully depopulated of wildlife), get a job, and be once again rendered totally dependent upon an agricultural system that is ruining the environment (erosion, aquifer draining, desertification, water poisoning), mistreating animals, creating numerous diseases and mortal dangers for human consumers, and so on.
All is not lost
When I sat down to write this morning, I actually didn’t intend to go off the way I did above. What I had intended to write about was a bit more of a good news story and I was surprised at the turn of the tenor. Now I know first hand how a story can take a life of its own (I used to be skeptical when writers would say things like, ‘I didn’t know the story would go like this, or like that’).
Anyway, the good news is that mostly I do politick with the predators. After the cougar incident, we built more housing for the goats: by more, I mean more expensive and thus safer. In addition, I learned that when the bear comes and breaks branches on my apple tree, it is time to go pick all the apples as a preventative measure. I have also come to several agreements with the bears. When I do harvest all the apples, I make three piles: one for fresh eating, one for preserving and one for the bears. I take the last pile out to the spot where she enters the property and dump them there. I have found that over the course of a few nights, she will come and eat them all and not bother to re-enter the property.
Also, I have several well established grape vines climbing on a pergola at the edge of the property; two green, two red. Every year a grizzly bear comes and eats the grapes. She likes the red but leaves me the green. She wrote up the contract and I signed on. To date, it is working nicely.