A large wooden gift plaque reads “MAN CAVE: VIOLATERS WILL BE MAULED”; a grizzly head, jaws agape, teeth bared, ready to rip someone to shreds. Just a silly sign but it causes me to reflect on how stereotypes of animals become culturally ingrained over time. Children’s books show bears in a more whimsical light, such as the lovable Pooh-bear, or thoughtful Baloo. I personally grew up with Goldilocks and the three bears. Most people have never seen a grizzly in the wild, including politicians who make life-and-death decisions over “bear management”.
The truth about grizzlies is neither as bad as the worst stereotype nor as harmless as children’s tales. All of us who speak for grizzlies need to raise the calibre of awareness about the intelligence, the sensitivity and the way of being that these bears authentically present in a natural setting. A romanticized notion does them as much disservice as fear-mongering.
When I went bear viewing, I was deeply impressed by the dedication of the guides to keep people safe, but, perhaps even more so, to their commitment to keeping the bears safe. A bear doesn’t get to make mistakes when he/she comes into contact with humans. It’s up to the humans to prevent the conflicts in the first place. The genuine caring of those bear guides rubs off on ecotourists in good ways and makes us want to better understand our fellow “bruins”.
Take a look, for instance, at the experience of Dr. Melanie Clapham, bear researcher, whose video interview with a fellow researcher was interrupted by a curious cub.
A good example of a human community learning to coexist with bears can be found in the report on Meadow Creek bear education and management of 2013-14. The community of Meadow Creek is situated in the valley bottom between the Selkirk and Purcell ranges. It’s prime human and bear habitat both, where bears have typically experienced high mortality rates at the hands of residents. In addition to a wide variety of deterrent strategies, this study shows how a shift in human attitudes toward living with bears is what makes the biggest difference to human-bear coexistance. The author makes the point that bears can be taught what is socially appropriate around human habitation but it’s up to people to choose non-lethal ways of dealing with bears when they do come in close proximity. The author also points out that sub-adult bears, typically 3-4 years of age and newly independent, may come into conflict through their relative naivety but that this age-group is also easily taught how to behave appropriately around human settlements. I’ve read that the ability of bear cubs to form mental maps, based on what they learn from their mother’s early teachings, is comparable to the ability of a 3-year old human child. Think about how much a child of three has already learned in their short life. It’s incredible. Bears and people can all learn to behave properly.
Bears can be taught to navigate safely around human communities. People can certainly remember to do what they were taught by the age of three: Say you’re sorry and try to make it better. Put an end to hunting bears for sport or profit, learn about their ways and how to behave properly around them and teach others to respect bears as the keystone engineers of healthy ecosystems that they rightfully are, in BC and elsewhere.
For more information about brown bears, go to Dr. Clapham’s Brown Bear Research Network.