On the Subject of Black Bears

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( a friend of mine named BB)

 

About two weeks ago my dogs and I had a glorious experience in a remote well wooded area. I had identified fresh bear sign and the three of us were following bear tracks into a steep gully when we came upon a young golden brown bear who emerged from behind a boulder to regard us with curiosity. When I spoke to him/her quietly the bear watched me intently; I lost time. Unafraid, the youngster eventually meandered on.

 

And then, twice in the last week, I attended presentations during which people literally winced and moaned when the subject of Black bears was raised.

 

As a researcher who conducted a formal fifteen – year academic study of these remarkable animals, I experienced the usual crushing dismay that Black bears continue to be perceived as such a threat to humans, when the truth is that they evolved as a prey animal, and remain so today. Black bears are cautious around humans unless they have been terrorized by them; then they avoid people at all costs. A human has a one in a million chance of being killed by a Black Bear; one is 17 more times likely to die of a spider bite.

 

How has the Black bear become such a perceived threat to humankind especially in this country?

 

One reason is that we are a culture that is hell bent on keeping the outdated “man against nature” paradigm alive. This perspective pits humans against all non – human species with a vengeance. In addition, the unconscious psychological mechanism of projection allows people to ascribe human killer tendencies/evil onto hapless animals giving us permission to kill them indiscriminately. We also imagine that we are separate and superior to every species but our own. How else could we continue to destroy the planet that is our home without whose resources we could not survive?

 

Of course, this cultural attitude of senseless fear of Black bears in particular (and all wild animals by extension) is also generated in this country by powerful special interest organizations like the NRA that deliberately uses the myth of the killer bear for its own benefit while pontificating that we have the “right” to bear arms, regardless of character or self responsibility. This current explosion of men with guns has created a crisis of monumental proportions at the cost of lives, human and non-human alike.

 

One critical lesson I have learned in my life is to watch what people say and what they actually do. If there is a split between the two, pay attention to what these folks do and not what they say – talk is cheap. The so called state Wildlife organizations say they are interested in caring for/saving animals but what they do is to make money from ordinary folk and support hunters who slaughter animals as a matter of course. These people also expose their colossal arrogance/ignorance by stating as “truth” that all wild animals need to be managed by humans when animals have been around for 350 million years and humans for about 200,000 years. How utterly absurd.

 

There is something deeply repellent to me about the state fish and game folks who want us to slaughter bears for “fun” and for trophies, rarely for food. In fact here in New Mexico the head of a black bear is the symbol for our state wildlife organization.

 

There are a number of theories that attempt to address why bears in particular are so feared by humans. One of the most popular (not scholarly) of these is that humans were originally prey animals so we “instinctively” fear black bears and all wild animals. In this way of thinking the story is written into our DNA. The problem with this theory (and please remember that theories are intellectual ideas, and not truth with a capital “T”) is that it contradicts a multitude of children’s studies that indicate just the opposite – namely that very young children appear to be universally drawn to wild animals, especially bears, and are not afraid of them. There are many European children’s fairy tales that focus on the special relationship between bears and children. The helpful bear saves, protects, or imparts hidden knowledge to the children (especially girls) – like how to trust one’s instincts. In this country Native peoples honor the bear as a great healer/protector. Children who are afraid of animals have been taught to fear them by the adults around them.

 

And this brings me around to the power of the image to influence human perception. Look at any hunting magazine and you will note the frightening predatory look of the animal on the front cover. In Maine I used to dread August not just because it ushered in bear hunting season but also because in every store the covers of all the hunting magazines portrayed a GIANT Black Bear as a vicious bloody killer roaring with a huge open mouth full of teeth (contrary to popular belief, bears don’t roar at all). Exaggerating the size of an animal to generate unrealistic fear is something that every hunting magazine and state agency routinely does. Most adult male Black bears run about 250 pounds and yet these magazines/agencies always use the pictures of the exception to the general rule – the one that weighs 400 pounds – and is probably a captive animal. Most Black bears don’t survive long enough in the wild to attain a weight that even approaches this number, because the majority are shot as yearlings or sub adults. Yet, these horrific images work on us below the threshold of our awareness especially if we have no relationship to the wilderness and the wild animals around us. We have all been socialized/inculcated into a culture that supports the idea that any wild animal is “automatically” dangerous to humans. And creating mindless fear and revulsion for profit is something advertisers do well.

 

In reality Black bears are extremely shy, intelligent, curious animals that learn to avoid people unless people choose to befriend them as I did. My trust-based study was based on my ability to develop a personal relationship with any bear that would tolerate my presence and allow me entrance into her/his world. Needless to say, many would not. Too shy.

 

What I discovered early on was that Black bears always clearly communicated what they needed/wanted from me. My initial challenge was learning to understand their language. For example, most bears needed me to respect their need for space. Even the bears that chose to interact with me let me know when I got too close by huffing or slapping the ground, twig, bush, tree with a paw. I learned quickly that talking to them quietly relieved their anxiety. When badly frightened Black bears moan like children, or do the opposite, hiss and slap branches while hugging the upper limbs of their trees which they co –evolved with. Too often a bear’s anxiety is interpreted as aggression. It’s worth repeating that the Black bear evolved on this continent as a prey animal who was/is totally dependent on tree cover for protection (Infant bears begin climbing shortly after birth, exploring the den, long before they emerge in the spring and are instantly “treed” by mother to keep them safe).

 

In New Mexico we have a population of about 6000 Black bears that live in remote mountainous terrain, always close to some kind of water. If you happen to meet a Black bear while hiking, please don’t panic. Speak quietly to the animal and give it the space it needs to go on its way. For anyone who is really terrified of bears it is useful to carry a whistle. When blown the bear will disappear in an instant, I promise you I know. Once I was afraid of bears too!