Bears and fruit trees, part three

Because of what I do and where I live, I am often talking with people about the human-wildlife conflict, and am continually surprised by what I hear. There are many misconceptions about our relationship with nature in general and with wildlife in particular. During these discussions, I notice there are several persistent themes (false beliefs) that are pervasive about the human-bear relationship. What I hope to do over the course of several posts is to examine these key themes and shed light on these common false beliefs. The first two post of this series are, ‘How to make bears and fruit trees get along’ and ‘Bears and fruit trees, part two.’

As ever, I welcome your feedback and comments as they can add to the discussion and help me develop my position.

False belief #3: We can live in harmony with wildlife

This belief is held by people who are insulated from the essential biological condition of all animals, including the human one. The commonalities are: people refuse to hear facts from local people who know, preferring instead to will their own believed reality into existence; people get their information from television, where reality is at one remove and often distorted by Disney-fied commentary; despite the close encounters and reports of deaths, people insist that those incidents are the exception, that the responsibility for such attacks is the humans, who were too close, too unkind, to…, or that Nature has somehow let them down, backsliding from Her normal benign ‘co-existence’ model.

In his new book The War in the Country (Vancouver: Greystone, 2009), Thomas F. Pawlick recounts an incident in Algonquin Park, Ontario, when he advised a European couple not to have their photograph taken close to some nearby black bears with its cubs. “Oh no,” said the woman, “we’ve seen bears on television lots of times, and people pet them and everything else.” Pawlick explained that not only were these wild bears, but also that one of them had cubs, which meant the mother would kill the couple on the spot. Ignoring his advice, the couple approached the bears until the mother stood up and growled, which prompted them to retreat, the woman complaining indignantly, “Well, that didn’t sound friendly.” (Pages 266-7) I have had the same experience here where I ranch.

The second commonality is deeply entrenched in our western urban psyche. From Disney to National Geographic, well-intentioned nature films, with their telescopic lenses and generally uplifting environmental commentaries, give the comfortable couch-sitter the impression that all nature, including the big animals, is there as a backdrop to uplifting or cute human encounters. Even ‘educational’ films about bear safety often feature individuals in close proximity to bears, safe only (I presume) in the knowledge that there is an array of sharpshooters just out of camera range. Whatever the unseen ‘big picture’ of these movies may be, they are irresponsible in not telling us the whole truth of their construction. Even the experts in these movies can be ill-informed, as the  sad example of Tim Treadwell (the “Grizzly Man” of the movie) and Amie Huguenard demonstrates. In the opinion of another bear expert, Kevin Sanders:

Anyone that spends as much time in the field as Tim and I have, will no doubt have had similar experiences. I remember once out at my bear viewing area sitting alone one day, and feeling a bit sleepy in the warm sun I decided to lay back and close my eyes for a moment, when I remember feeling that something was watching me. I slowly raised up and looked around, only to discover that a family of six coyotes had moved in behind me, the adult alpha’s sitting within feet of me while the pups played nearby. After a few minutes, I decided to get up and walk across the meadow, only to have the whole family follow along beside me. The only difference between Tim and I is, Tim felt that the fox were kindred spirits, whereas I knew that the coyotes were looking at me as they would any other large carnivore in the wild, and that hopefully I would lead them to food much as a bear or wolf would do. Or maybe, I was the food! …

Tim’s foolish disregard for his own safety, and over confidence dealing with bears in the past, luck really, not to mention his mistake of placing anthropomorphic values on bears, and disregarding established federal guidelines when photographing and camping with brown bears contributed to both Tim and Amie’s death. Grizzly bears are wild animals and should always be treated as such, wild and unpredictable. Not a pet, or lovable cuddly bear…. (Kevin Sanders, 2008)

The third commonality is related to the other two, in that it, too, places humans at the centre. I have often seen people going into bear areas without any defense system (knife, gun, bow), or carrying their pepper spray and clicking their rocks, every so often shouting “Yo Bear!” and secure in their belief that by intruding into bear territory openly yet adhering to the ’10 commandments’ of ‘being bear aware’ (making noise, clicking rocks, sticking to the trail, and so on) they will not really be intruding into their territory and thus will not have any deleterious encounters. “If we don’t bother them, they won’t bother us,” they are told, and so they believe. Jim West, who survived a bear attack in 70 Mile House British Columbia in 2008, by killing the bear and requiring sixty stitches on his head and body, was harassed for his actions. Gary Shelton documents several similar cases where bear attack victims were vilified by the (largely urban) public. He argues that so deeply held are people’s beliefs in our ability to intrude safely into the wild, that contrary evidence can cause psychic trauma:

Most modern young people who have careers that require working in the field have university degrees. In many universities, like the ones in British Columbia, these people often obtain a view pint about mankind and nature that is incorporated into their beliefs about life. One principle in that viewpoint is that animals attack only when people have wrongly intruded on their space, and if you obey the rules of retreat, animals will back off as they don’t really intend you any harm. In some types of bear attacks on a person with such beliefs, where the bear exhibits behavior contrary to that belief system and the person is severely injured, their psychology of belief is also injured. This may sound minor in significance, but considering that this type of person is often someone who has embraced nature pantheism, the resulting trauma can be deep, lingering, and hard to diagnose. (Bear Attacks II: Myth & Reality, Hagensborg: Pallister, 2001,  p.147)

To sum up, all three commonalities which lead to what I call ‘False belief #3: We can live in harmony with wildlife’ exhibit the human ability to deny reality in favour of a deeply held, prior belief. As Francis Bacon so wisely stated, “Man prefers to believe what he prefers to be true.”


Filed under Animal issues, Bears, Conservation, Educational, Food Security, Fruit Trees, Politicking with predators, Politics of Food

17 responses to “Bears and fruit trees, part three

  1. Pingback: Bears and fruit trees, part two « Howling Duck Ranch

  2. Pingback: Making bears and fruit trees get along « Howling Duck Ranch

  3. It strikes me that those who believe that anyone can truly live “in harmony” with Nature are forgetting that Nature is not, by its nature, harmonious. (Wow, how many times can you say “nature” before the word loses all meaning…?!)

    In other words, the mouse does not live in harmony with the owl, the rabbit does not live in harmony with the hawk, and so on. Oh, and that’s before any of us, animal, vegetable or mineral, begin to consider the impact of Nature itself, from hurricanes to tidal waves, floods to droughts, Nature is a force of destruction.

    Nature is Chaos. It’s cruel, strikes without mercy, is unfair.

    This is an excellent series of posts! Keep em coming 🙂

  4. Monica

    Great series of essays, thank you. People forget that bears and humans are attracted to the same foods, and compete more directly than many other species. Honey, fruit, berries, livestock- it’s all delicious to both species. Conflict is inevitable, especially if the bears lose their fear of us.

    There are things that people who hunt and gather at the supermarket do not understand. Humans remain predators, and the livestock was always prey, even before we domesticated them. We are not actually removed from nature, we’ve simply installed a few buffers so most of us aren’t as close to it as we used to be.

  5. I was thinking of Timothy Treadwell when you wrote your last post. What a fascinating person and film but so very sad and an excellent example for this discussion. I think that regardless of whether he wanted it to or not his film did, in the end, show the whole truth about living with bears.

  6. Doris

    Here’s an article that may have some pertinence to the subject at hand:

    Funny, I just recently read that the public school system effectively teaches that we are to ‘trust the experts’. Very painful to find out ‘the experts’ can be wrong.

    Francis Bacon had it right.

  7. Monica

    Doris, I believe that article is indeed relevant. It reminds me of a C.S. Lewis quote:

    “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

    I keep seeing these regulations being implemented by people who do not have to live with the consequences.

    HDR, I just found your site, and have been absorbing your archives, and I love your writing. You’re living the life I am working towards, and I thank you for generously sharing your learning process.

    • Hello Monica,

      Welcome to the blog! I’m glad you are enjoying it. It is for people like you that I started it. I too have worked towards the life I’m living and am still working towards it (so many goals, so little time and money). I hope to inspire others who may not have the background (like I didn’t) but have the desire to try. The funniest part of some of the pages (the butchering poultry in particular), I was glad to have made them because I needed to reference them myself when I started butchering for the first time alone!

      Thank-you for the lovely comment about my writing.



  8. Monica

    Thanks for the welcome! I *love* the butchering tutorials. It’s a brilliant idea. I try to write things down, but pictures/blogpost is a better reminder.

    I can’t believe I haven’t found this blog earlier- you are doing the things I have envisioned (fruit trees, goats, cheese, the provisioning project). I am both delighted to see it in action, and frustrated that it’s so difficult for farmers like you to make a living providing high quality food for your community.

    I come from a multigenerational farm family, but I’m not in the “inheritance” line, so I’ll have to start from scratch somewhere else. My farming relatives work off the farm to pay for the lifestyle they love. They think I’m crazy for wanting to bother with such a sure economic loser.

    My dream is a spot in Alberta, so fewer astonishingly lovely mountains and more endless blue skies . What you have built looks amazing. I am lucky to have a spouse who also wants to leave the city, but is realistic about the need for off-farm income, although he draws the line at artificially inseminating goats.

    For now, I’m biding my time and waiting for an opportunity. Playing around on my little city lot with hardy fruit plants, and a bit of vegetable gardening. I plan to dabble in cheesemaking this year as well, if I can get my hands on high quality milk.

    Hope you ring in the New Year in style, and that the coming year brings you prosperity and joy.


    • Doris

      Dunno why the folks who inherit don’t value the treasure they have, while those of us who were born to farm have to find our own way back to the land. I married a city boy, who just doesn’t get it, and has no understanding of my passion. So I do what I can. I’ve been raising chickens and had found the slaughtering part rather difficult, but after learning a really good technique, have slaughtered 5 this week and am feeling rather proud of myself. It’s just not something I would ever want to take for granted. And yes, HDR’s posts were huge in moving me forward on that path.

  9. I used to always keep in mind, wandering in the Bella Coola bush, that I was in the bears’ territory. It was theirs, not mine; I was there only on their sufferance. So I did all the right things; make noise, go in groups (usually), stay on the trails, watch odors (food, perfume, etc.); but also kept my eyes open, stayed away in cubbing season, kept my distance from any bear I sighted, watched for cubs in trees.

    And even then, I knew there was danger; I was the unwelcome intruder, and the bears would be within their “rights” to get rid of me, however they saw fit.

    (Where I grew up, on Vancouver Island, there were cougars. The same went for them, or even more so; they are large, efficient predators, and kids were fair game.)

  10. theundergroundbaker


    Thought I would drop in with a few of my own thoughts. Love the site and topics…

    I think using the words cruel, unfair, intruder etc still creates the notion of us and them – them being both animals and other elements of nature. We should remember it isn’t us or them…we are all animals after all, whether you believe we were created by god or not. Rather, I believe “nature” is more like a balancing act.

    Nor do I think nature is chaos, rather, it just runs on a different kind of order than many people run on. You can be sure that many people, especially those that hunt for a large part of their food supply, see order in nature. It is your own knowlege of the specific environment that makes you think it is cruel, unfair or orderly. Not to mention that these are complex human emotional and/or logical terms of which I question have any relevance to “nature”. I think nature creates human feelings of joy, fear, awe and the like, but to say it is unfair means it does something to us on purpose.

    Although I have been living in a city for decades, I was raised in rural areas, and worked in isolation in the bush of north western Canada for quite some time. I would go up in the early spring and come down in the fall. I have never felt such a keen sense of order as when I lived in the cabin, alone, with wildlife crossing my little bit of “territory” on a regular basis. Interactions with wildlife were often, as a matter of fact, downright regular and almost always respectful from all parties. (That isn’t to say I didn’t have a very big gun, just in case). The memories from those years sustain me even now when life gets incredibley hectic – I look to that frame of mind and space for serenity and order.

    • There certainly is a kind of ‘order’ to nature. For example, the grizzly bear that shows up every summer to dine on my fruit. She is the same sow each year. Animals, like humans, have their routines just as the trees and birds and insects do. A hunter friend of mine was recently down in Colorado hunting for turkey. He laughed as he told me that every morning he would arrive on the hill before the turkeys got up. Every day, they came down the hill the same way and crossed the road below within 20 feet either side of the exact spot they crossed the day before. Not unlike us going to work. We get up at the same hour, drive the same route to and from, and arrive home at the same time each day. Trees are the same. For example, cherries are always ripe for a similar two week period each year. In between this serenity are seemingly chaotic events such as floods, fires, tornadoes, and so on. However, maybe they too have a pattern we are unable to yet distinguish.


  11. Pingback: Bears and fruit trees, part 4 « Howling Duck Ranch

  12. Pingback: Bears and fruit trees – part 5 « Howling Duck Ranch

  13. Pingback: Needless Suffering Comes Home to Roost « Howling Duck Ranch

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