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.”